Resurrection-soldiers at the tomb

The Resurrection of Jesus: Investigation & Apologetic Approach

In Foundations, Jesus by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

“… God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” (Acts 17:30–32 NASB)

I decided to move the evidence to a third part and spend a bit more time looking at how we go about this investigation, as well as some of the apologetic methods which approach this topic. For those too anxious to get to the evidence, please see the ‘Resources’ at the end of the article.

Last time, we looked at the presuppositions which often underlie the skeptic’s arguments put forth against Jesus’ Resurrection. Are they really neutral as portrayed? If one rules something out of possibility from the get-go, they exclude the very thing under investigation. If a police chief – upon hearing witnesses describe a 6-foot caucasian leaving the murder scene – tells the investigation team to find the killer, except ignore the testimony about ‘caucasian’ because we all know white people don’t murder, he won’t be seen as the noble skeptic, but more likely as part of some other nefarious, less than objective, group.

For the Christian, a presupposition or bias is also involved, as we have not only the historical evidence to consider, but the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, our experience with Jesus, and the revelation of God’s Word. I believe it is justified bias, but bias nonetheless. But as we learned last time, if you witnessed a crime, you’re biased, but that isn’t a bad thing. This is just to say that the average Christians typically doesn’t weigh the evidence for the Resurrection, arrive at a 52.3% likelihood, and thus become a convert. On the other hand, seeing how strong the evidence really is should bolster their faith and give skeptics pause.

In this segment I would like to take a look at some methods of weighing the evidence. This (or especially when we get to the data) will not be an exhaustive examination by any means. Entire books (many of them!) have been written on the subject, along with doctoral dissertations at prominent universities around the world. (1)Like Gary Habermas at Michigan State University, or William Lane Craig under Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich I’m only going to scratch the surface, but I want to provide a taste of the evidence and look at the flow of argumentation to see why it is so powerful. I’m also not going to attempt to properly cite most of the information, as I’ve collected this stuff over the years from many of the figures I’ll list in the ‘Resources.’


I see five major approaches to interpreting and conveying the data. The first is that of the Christian. Since a Christian has the inner testimony of the Holy Spirt, they recognize the truthfulness of the Biblical account and their Lord and Savior in its pages. They know Jesus lives, so the account makes sense. Recognizing the historical accuracy of the accounts, and how alternate attempts fail to explain the data, confirms their inner witness and experience. A sub-category of this would be the skeptic turned Christian, who feels the weight of this evidence played a role in the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, and thus, their conversion.

The second is a kind of ‘reliable witness’ apologetic method promoted throughout the history of Christianity, but probably most familiar in recent times through the work of Josh McDowell. The apostle Paul used this type of argument in 1 Cor. 15 in what is one of the earliest recordings of the event. Paul seems to be drawing from a credal statement which likely goes back to within months to a few years following the event. (2)About 25 years at max for Paul writing it down, according to Habermas; more likely about 18 years post-crucifixion. Paul is essentially pointing to witness testimony of the event in a ‘check it out and see’ type of way. This extends to today, where the Bible has been scrutinized more than any historical text and has come out looking great in terms of historical reliability and accuracy. Jesus makes claims of deity and what he will do and then backs them up. If everything we can test shows historical reliability, why toss what we can’t test, apart from an a priori rejection of the supernatural? Factor in the actions of Jesus’ disciples and the massive growth of the Christian church, and you almost have to conclude that something similar to the event happened. Worst case, Jesus’ early followers were tricked or delusional but something big certainly happened.

The third is a more recent ‘minimal facts’ method originated by Gary Habermas. This method basically says to the skeptic, “OK, for the sake of argument…” we’ll narrow the data down to some minimal points which even the most skeptical of the experts seem to agree upon. Then we can look and see what explanations seem plausible and which must be rejected. That should narrow things down, at minimum. Obviously, one can’t get to certainty, but that is true of anything historical. What we can do is figure out which explanations are reasonable, given the data, and drop the rest. If an explanation can’t cover the minimal data, there is little need to continue arguing about more controversial data.

A fourth approach would be what I’ll call ‘rejection of the supernatural.’ Many scholarly skeptics seem to fall into this camp. As Habermas pointed out in his research (and William Lane Craig has demonstrated in his debates), they agree about much of the historical data and its reliability, until they reach the resurrection itself. Much like the apostle Paul’s audience, they assume resurrections are impossible. (3)While we certainly have more technological tools to investigate things today, it is anachronistic to assume people in Jesus’ time were simple or easily fooled by stories of miracles. Just like today, some too readily believed, others investigated, and still others were presuppositionally skeptical. The difference is that Paul’s audience did not yet have philosopher David Hume to give such a position a veneer of scholarly credibility. It doesn’t matter how strong the evidence is, it could never be strong enough to prove something supernatural occurred to the satisfaction of one who holds this position.

The fifth is what I’d call ‘rejection from ignorance… or worse’ position. In my experience, this is the most common position within our culture today. Many are simply ignorant of the depth of Christianity’s claims and are too distracted to care. They’ve adopted a few memes which sound persuading enough to satisfy them. And since they are rarely challenged on their position, they believe they have rightly rejected some cultural baggage. This has the side benefit (or is it the driving force?) in some cases, of freeing them to chase desires which were taboo in previous generations, let alone to simply do other ‘better’ things with their time. This creates a situation where emotion is forbidding the intellect to take an honest look at the data. You’ll recognize this if you start hearing names like Horus and Osiris from the pseudo-scholars, or Sky-Fairies and Jewish-zombie from the obnoxiously arrogant. From the kinder sort, you’ll hear statements such as, “I’m glad that has meaning in your life, but I’m just not into that.”

It is worth noting that Gary Habermas’ doctoral dissertation had the following stipulation placed on it: “The topic was approved by his committee, but he was told specifically that he could not use the New Testament as evidence, unless the individual passages could be affirmed by ordinary critical standards, apart from faith.” (4) And, of course, Gary did get his doctorate degree from that dissertation, so apparently, at least in the eyes of the faculty of Michigan State University, he must have met the criteria. If you fall into the last couple positions above, this might be an indicator you should take a more careful look.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the evidence and see how well it squares with various explanations.

Gary Habermas
William Lane Craig
Mike Licona
N.T. Wright
“The Resurrection of the Son of God”
Craig Hazen (starts about 28:30 min in)
J Warner Wallace (excellent compilation of information)

Image credit: Resurrection of Christ by Waiting For The Word


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