The Resurrection of Jesus: A Christian Apologetics Cornerstone

Resurrection-soldiers at the tomb

Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion and death is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. The apostle Paul, after giving an account (1 Cor 15) of this event, says that if it didn’t happen, the Christian religion is useless. He adds that, then, Christians should be most pitied because they are still in trouble with the God of the universe. But even on a practical note, it would seem that for people who spend a good portion of their time on Christian activities, that time could be much better spent.

Paul makes a pretty strong claim. If Jesus is either myth or dead somewhere, the rest of our apologetics are pointless. And it wasn’t just Paul highlighting the importance of the resurrection; the other disciples based their case on the testimony of this event throughout their writings. Even Jesus points to the centrality of this event in Matthew 12:39-40. It is the key piece of evidence.

It is also an interesting claim in that it is historically grounded and testable in a unique way among world religions. The majority of world religions make no historical claims crucial to the religion. Sure, if Siddhartha Gautama never lived, it might throw a bit more skepticism on Buddhism, but it would have little impact on the truthfulness or falsity of the Buddhist worldview. Anyone could make similar claims about reality, which would need to be evaluated based on their own merit. Who made them, apart from his piety and sincerity (which might help credibility), is fairly irrelevant.

For a Christian who recognizes the nature of inspired Scripture, little more is needed. The claim of Jesus’ resurrection is well supported by the Biblical texts. But how are Christians supposed to respond to the challenges of the skeptics concerning this historical event? How can a Christian be sure this event happened as recorded?

First, a bit more about the Biblical witness. There is not room in this article for a strong defense of why Christians hold the Bible as the trustworthy (and usually inerrant) Word of God, nor is there room to get into topics like textual criticism, or detailed evidence and argument concerning historical reliability. (1) However, we can argue from the historical evidence generally agreed upon by historians to make a very strong case. This kind of defense won’t get you all the way to certainty, but it demonstrates the reasonableness as well as the best-explanation nature of the historical claim. Rather than being crazy to believe, it becomes rather crazy not to.

Many skeptics immediately dismiss the Biblical account from the start. They say that since the Bible is the Christian text, it has to be tossed out based on bias. This is simply faulty reasoning. Let me give you an example to make this clear. Suppose you were a juror at a murder trial. The first witness is called; the wife of the victim. You listen to her testimony and hear the horrifying story as she recounts watching the fateful event. After she finishes, the judge instructs the jury to ignore this testimony, as the witness is biased. After all, she isn’t impartial because she believes the defendant murdered her husband!

The next witness is a bit different. He certainly was impartial initially. He didn’t know any of the people involved. But, he saw the defendant run from the victim’s home, bloody, with weapon in hand. He ran into the house and saw the victim, comforted the wife, and called for help. He can’t be 100-percent certain of what happened, but he’s fairly convinced he knows. Again, the judge strikes this testimony from evidence, citing bias. After all, he believes the defendant is guilty, so he is hardly impartial either.

Do you see the problem here? With this kind of reasoning, we would have to toss out all testimony-based history (which would  be nearly everything). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our reason in evaluating the testimony. If we found out the wife recently took out a huge life-insurance policy, or discovered the second witness actually had a grudge against the victim, we’d probably have a different take on what bias might mean in those circumstances. Problematic bias doesn’t mean you’ve been convinced of something and are no longer neutral, but that you have an unreasonable disposition towards one conclusion.

Mike Licona and Greg Koukl make the point that if Christians can’t write history, Jews can’t write about the Holocaust, nor a feminist about women’s issues. If we throw out historians on the basis of bias (in that they believe something on the issue), there would be no historians. (2)

But even if we were to discount the biblical testimony, the event would not run counter to the nonbiblical evidence. We just wouldn’t have nearly the detail to go on – though we might still have enough to reach a fairly certain conclusion.

Making the Case

Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine, and video recorders weren’t yet invented at the time of Christ. (3) We do have a lot of witness testimony and some archeological evidence to consider. The key is in how we go about evaluating this evidence. Most skeptics consider alternate explanations prematurely, which fail to match the overall evidence or even take the majority of it into consideration.

Gary Habermas states this clearly:

“… the more popular approach through the centuries has been to pose a naturalistic theory to account for the data. Such a move basically attempts to allow for historical facts where the evidence is the strongest, while veering off in a natural direction before getting to the punch line involving the resurrection. Here they need to propose an alternative scenario: ‘Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. What really happened was (fill in the blank).’

However, this is probably the most difficult method of all. In fact, when faced with this option, the vast majority of critical scholars opt out. They are often well aware that when an option is chosen, the weight of the known historical facts comes crashing clown against their proposal. In fact, they are so well aware of this eventuality that only a few attempt it. Even among scholars, it is generally conceded that none of these options work.” (4)

And, we Christians need to appreciate that this debate is nothing new. The apostle Paul also faced an audience skeptical of resurrections. Mike Horton notes with his typical humor:

“Paul doesn’t say, ‘Yes they are; the dead are raised.’ He says, ‘If the dead are not raised, generally speaking, then Christ is not raised. But reverse that, if Christ is raised, then your universal a-priori is hooey.’ It’s amazing how many people with a scientific or historical mind will come to Christianity as if it were any other religion making subjective claims about how I feel and what is good for me and what I find useful, and will simply say, in a similar way, abstractly, resurrections don’t happen. As if people who use electric washers are the first people in the universe to ever have said the dead are not raised. Paul is saying, that is what folks are saying here. The problem is, you have a resurrection on your hands; deal with it.” (5)

Now that we have set the groundwork for taking an honest look at the data, in part 2, we will take a look at the evidence and lines of historical argumentation, as well as the faults in some common alternate explanations. We’ll also look at what we could learn using nonbiblical testimony.

It is worth noting that a hyper-skeptical position exists which holds that the whole account is simply a myth based on past ‘dying and rising’ gods. This type of position has been thoroughly refuted within scholarship – even scholarship otherwise critical to Christianity – yet it can be quite popular within the general public and on Internet forums. See our other article which generally critiques this concept of parallels, or look for the many great refutations by various scholars which get into the details.

Some resources:

  • “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” – William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman debate. March 28, 2006 – College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Habermas, Gary. The case for the resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.
  • More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell
  • “Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?” by William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann (debate)
  • The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas & Michael Licona
  • “The Resurrection of Jesus” by Dr. William Lane Craig

———-

Notes:

1. We cover those topics in other articles.
2. Stand To Reason – 04/27/09 – “Mike Licona – Resurrection Myth Stories”
3. I often wonder if skeptics would trust a video recording anyway, as they can be faked.
4. Gary Habermas, “The Case for Christ’s Resurrection.” In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian World View, ed. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland, 180-198. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. – http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/inbook_to-everyone-an-answer/habermas_case-for-xp-res.htm
5. White Horse Inn – “What the Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 2″ – 2013-06-08

Image credit: Resurrection of Christ by Waiting For The Word

This article was first published at TilledSoil.org. Copyright © 2013 TilledSoil.org. All rights reserved.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steve Wilkinson

Steve loves getting people excited about Christian apologetics (case-making); seeing the beauty and rationality of Christianity and the Christian worldview. He is a husband, father, and long-time tech geek. Steve is director/educator at TilledSoil.org and also a designer/consultant at cgWerks. He holds a MA in Theology (Interdisciplinary - Christianity, Church & Culture) from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. You can follow Steve on Twitter @TilledSoil, connect with him/TilledSoil.org on Facebook, or catch up with him on Google+.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    Hello Steve,

    thanks for your passion for the Lord!

    That said, why don’t you quote what opponents to the faith (like John Loftus) have to say?

    Lovely greetings from Germany.
    Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

      Hello,
      You’d have to be more specific, I’m afraid. I’ve only recently run across John Loftus (and haven’t been terribly impressed by what I’ve heard… so I haven’t paid him much attention.)

  • Frank

    Hello Steve,

    I have a few thoughts about your article.

    FIrst, the witness analogies. True, it’s pretty much impossible to find completely unbiased witnesses, but I don’t think your murder witness analogies do justice to the skepticisms about witness credibility in the bible. A more apples to apples analogy might be this. There was a murder. The wife, the defendant, claims a ghost murdered her husband. The witness is called and happens to also be the founder and president of Ghostsnghouls.com (a real site about paranormal activity). If you were in the jury, would you be skeptical of his testimony? Or take it a notch further, you find out that the witness critically needs the picture of the murdering ghost to be real, in fact his company’s future depends entirely on it. Would you be even more skeptical of his credibility?

    There have been a lot of debates out there about Jesus’ resurrection, and I think there are good points on both sides. But in the end this seems to me to be another god of the gaps argument. In other words, it turns into: “there is no reason we can think of, therefore god did it.” I think we both would agree that there is zero irrefutable hard evidence of the actual resurrection and post-mortam appearances. The montra of the believers on this topic seems to be: “you can’t provide a reasonable answer for why A would have said B, or why C would have done D, if not for the resurrection”. Even if you get the skeptic to agree on all the “facts” claimed by the apologists (e.g., the execution, the burial, the empty tomb), the response is going to be “I don’t know”. I don’t know how the tomb was emptied despite the guards on duty; I don’t know why his disciples thought they saw him; I don’t know why disciples were willing to die for their beliefs, etc. Then the believer comes along and says “Ah ha! You don’t know, therefore god did it.” That’s the definition of the god of the gaps argument.

    One thing I’ve noticed in discussing these topics with believers is that they don’t consider magic to be an unreasonable explanation. This is where believers and skeptics have no common ground. Consider a mystery being investigated today by the FBI and they just can’t seem to solve it, the pieces don’t add up unless you insert magic into the story, they would never do so because to do so would be irrational. That’s exactly how we see the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Of all the areas of the bible, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be as good as it gets for “proof”, which I’m sure gets believers excited, but I think, at its best, it’s miles away from convincing skeptics because of the requirement to infer magic.

    • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

      Hi Frank,
      I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing how your analogy is closer at all, other than the supernatural element you’ve introduced. If I had trustworthy witnesses from multiple angles who all verified the claims about this ghost-murder, then I’d have to take it seriously until debunked or otherwise explained. And, if all attempts to explain the situation through non-supernatural means had problems, it would have to remain a possible explanation. But, debating the possibility of the supernatural wasn’t really the point of my example.

      I’m just not getting your ‘questionable credibility parallels’ at all. I’m just drawing a blank about what you could possibly be referring to. The point was that once we’ve witnessed something, we’re going to be biased towards believing what we’ve witnessed. That kind of bias isn’t grounds to toss our testimony.

      It’s more than ‘god of the gaps’ because it isn’t simply that we have no other explanation. There are thousands of years of witness and prophecy leading up to it, and claims made by Jesus concerning it. In other words, it is the expected result, and then supporting evidence that it really happened, with alternate attempts to debunk, failing. The believer doesn’t go, ‘god did it,’ but, maybe that it happened as described. Why would that NOT be a good explanation? Isn’t it a ‘naturalism of the gaps’ argument to just say that it couldn’t have happened as described… just because. Just because what?

      I wouldn’t suppose magic either, but not because I have some kind of direct evidence which foils such an explanation. It’s part of my worldview, which rests on very good evidence, IMO, that magic doesn’t exist (well, the trickery or illusion kind might, but not the ability of humans to control supernatural forces through some kind of words or actions).

      And, I actually don’t think it’s the best piece of evidence we have; just a strong piece of evidence which fits well into the overall support of the worldview puzzle.

      But, here’s the thing. You might well say, “Steve, on my worldview, supernatural doesn’t exit, so like your magic example above, resurrections don’t fit my worldview.” Fair enough. Now, we have to look at all the evidence for all the various parts of each of our worldviews and see which best matches reality.

      The resurrection isn’t a knock-down proof for Christianity (unless you’re a Christian and hold the Bible in it’s proper place of authority), but it fits the worldview. It is a defeater for it, though, should it be proven unlikely. The key (at least from the outside) is in looking at the big picture and seeing how all the components fit.

      • Frank

        Thanks for the response.

        I think you would agree that the disciples were heavily biased, both intellectually and emotionally; but you’re right, that doesn’t mean their accounts should be discarded completely. However, it’s not just the bias of the witnesses that causes us to be skeptical, the likelihood of an event occurring also plays a big role. If there was an eyewitness to a car crash, the car crash event itself does not diminish credibility, because those happen all the time. But if there was an eyewitness to extraterrestrials, or ghosts, or godzilla, or someone rising from the dead, it significantly diminishes the credibility of the eyewitness testimony because the possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken or lying increases. Do you see the difference? The resurrection was, after all, a miracle, and miracles by definition are extremely rare events in which the known laws of science are broken. Extraordinary evidence is required to support extraordinary claims.

        Also, not many talk about this, but I would bet that a lot of believers are not aware that the gospels also say that, at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, a lot of people were rising from the dead (Matthew 27:52-53) and walking around town. Even Paul supposedly raised someone from the dead (Acts 20:9-12) later on. Given the extraordinary nature of resurrections, in my mind, the more claimed in the gospels the less likely any of them occurred. Similar to when the jury finds out that a women claiming sexual harassment has claimed it on 10 separate occasions in the past against 10 different employers; it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it hurts credibility significantly.

        The resurrection is a personal interest of mine, I wrote a more detailed comment of my view of the evidence, if you’re interested: http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/09/10/irony-in-rejecting-eyewitnesses/#comment-1045329497

        • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

          Yes, the disciples were biased…. otherwise I’d certainly NOT believe them! Bias isn’t one of several reasons for skepticism, it’s a requirement for validity. If you’re telling me something, and you don’t believe it,why should I? The bias of the witnesses shouldn’t cause you to be skeptical at all.

          Yes, the likelihood of an event will have an influence on my decision to accept it or not, but I don’t think it diminishes the credibility of the witnesses automatically. If there is good evidence, it could still be a true, however unlikely event to which they were witnesses. Sure, they could be mistaken. We grant that possibility in examining the resurrection of Jesus. I just falls flat in trying to encompass the evidence, so we rightly reject it. Or, using your example, I don’t discount UFO accounts as a rule. I just believe alternate explanations DO typically cover them, and for the rest, I think they were just mistaken about their, very real, experiences being of alien origin from our physical universe.

          BTW, that isn’t really a good definition of miracle… but that would lead to a whole other lengthy discussion. Extraordinary claims require sufficient evidence.

          Yes, some people were brought back to life (though note that some of those passages are contested in various ways even within the Christian community). But, one crucial difference is that Jesus made a lot of claims before being killed, which then are vindicated if accurate. Also, be careful about the distinction between someone being brought back to life and resurrection, though I’m not sure it makes a difference for your particular points here (it does have an impact on the credibility of the account).

          I’m not sure the number would matter though. As you indicated, it might still be true with the women making that claim. It doesn’t hurt the credibility, unless any of them are found to be untrue. If the little boy is constantly encountering wolves, he’s not the proverbial little boy who cried wolf. We might start looking for some cause to tie them together, but we should just as carefully investigate ten as one. If her ten past accusations resulted in convictions, we would be more justified in believing her, though probably be curious as to why there might be such a trend.

          I’ll try to check out that article when I get a bit more time… thanks.

          • Frank

            In a courtroom, the more biased the witness, the less credible the witness. Do you disagree with this? If so, we can agree to disagree. However, I’m pretty sure the entire legal world sides with me.

            It sounds like we agree that, in a vacuum, the likelihood of an event affects the credibility of witness testimony. You quickly jump to additional categories that affect credibility, like evidence, but I’m trying to analyze each category methodically, then all together.

            Do you agree that, in the sexual harassment example, if the defense discovered she had claimed sexual harassment at 10 previous employers, and from 10 previous professors, it would provide a huge advantage to the defense? For simplicity sake, assume all her previous claims ended out of court in settlement. Basically I’m trying to layout an example of statistics: if something is extremely unlikely to happen even once, it is even less likely to happen a bunch of times. That’s the logic, and that’s why it’s a boon for the defense in the trial.

            • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

              Frank, maybe I should ditch the word bias, as it is probably coloring the discussion a bit too much. I come from an electronics engineering background, so the technical use of bias doesn’t have the same flavoring that our typical use of it today, I guess. It’s kind of like bringing up ‘cult’ in religious discussion… few seem to know the technical meaning anymore.

              I’m primarily trying to point out that none of us come to these things in a neutral state, and once someone has become convinced of something (especially if they were witnesses), then it would be obvious they shouldn’t be neutral any longer. The more neutral they seem, the less credible, as then I start to think maybe they didn’t really witness it or have memory loss, or something.

              And, no, I don’t think I agree that the likelihood affects the credibility, it might just affect my skepticism. The person is either credible or not. If a friend who tends to tell wild tales comes to me with a UFO story, it might be true, but his/her credibility hurts this testimony. If a friend who has always been honest and dependable tells me the same story, I’m pretty likely to believe them. I might ultimately decide they were mistaken, or that their UFO was, in fact, something else, but their credibility weighs heavily in how I react.

              re: example – Yes, I suppose each layer of complexity adds more to be convinced of or be skeptical of, but I’m not sure that 1 or 10 directly hurts her credibility. If they all were settled out of court, that certainly would demand an explanation, but wouldn’t hurt her account if there were a reasonable one. An honorable person would care more about justice than settlement, yet maybe she received death threats and is protecting herself. Like I noted above, if there were 10 instead of one, I probably would start looking for a possible unifying thread… which might wither help or hurt her case.

              But, I think I’m kind of lost as to what bearing this has on the Resurrection. Looking back at your original post, are you confusing corroborating evidence (multiple people saying someone won the lottery) with a repeating, unlikely event (like winning the lottery a bunch of times)?

  • Steven Carr

    ‘The apostle Paul also faced an audience skeptical of resurrections. ‘

    Yes, he was writing to recent Christian converts.

    I wonder why they had converted to Christianity, what with all the persecution.

    What is clear is that they had never been converted by stories of corpses rising.

    In fact, Paul thinks they are idiots even to discuss how corpse could rise, and reminds them that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’.

    Paul contrasts how Adam was created from dead matter (which his Christian converts believed) with how Jesus was resurrected.

    And Paul goes out of his way to diss any ideas that resurrected beings are reformed from the dust that a corpse becomes.

    1 Corinthians 15
    The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

    Our present day bodies are made from the dust of the earth, Heavenly bodies are not made from the same material that our present day bodies are made out of.

    Of course, the Christians in Corinth didn’t get that our present day body will not be resurrected, and wondered how a resurrection is possible if the body is destroyed or eaten by worms.

    So Paul had to write another letter.

    2 Corinthians 5
    For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

    So we leave one tent and enter another building.

    At least Paul stopped using the clothing metaphor for resurrection because those idiots in Corinth thought that when you got new clothes, you wore them on top of your old ones.

    • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

      Huh?

      • Steven Carr

        Sorry if I was unclear.

        Remind me why Paul was writing to recent Christian converts in Corinth who appeared to be openly scoffing at the idea that their god would choose to raise corpses.

        I guess the last thing that converted them was tales of a a god (or even Jesus) raising corpses.

        Paul’s words must be too complicated for you.

        I shall spell them out ‘ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit’.

        What part of the word ‘spirit’ would you like help with?

        • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

          Resurrection was a bit tough for them as it wasn’t generally within the realm of expectations in that culture that such a thing could happen (much like today, though for different philosophical and religious reasons). In some cultures, that might have been much more acceptable (though skepticism isn’t a recent thing). The backdrop was that resurrection for all (of those in that camp… there were others who denied resurrection altogether) would happen at the end of the world, and that God would be sending someone to free them from the Romans.

          From what I can see, Paul was trying to illustrate how Jesus could be both God and man, and how we will be like him in our own resurrected bodies one day. If we look at the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus, he was physical, but yet in a different way from how we now know physical (he ate and could be touched, but could enter locked rooms, traverse great distances instantly, etc.).

          Sure, Jesus is a life giving spirit, though don’t you detect just a smidgen of the use of metaphors there? Jesus is also a living vine, though I’ve never envisioned him as a house-plant. While Jesus is/has a spirit, he also clearly retains his physical body, though a transformed one.

          I guess I’m still unclear on the point you’re attempting to make. Are you arguing for a spiritual-only, non-physical, ‘resurrected’ Jesus the disciples imagined?