Review: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus

This article has been modified to fit the audience of this blog from an essay written for the philosophy course, Christian Apologetics, at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


caseforresurrectionAuthors: Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona
Publisher: Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004
Rating: 5/5 stars
Amazon Price: $17.81

Bottom Line

In discussions of the resurrection of Christ, there exists two opposing contentions on whether the resurrection of Christ actually happened. One side argues there is little evidence to His resurrection whereas the other side argues there is sufficient evidence. The resurrection of Jesus is crucial to the Christian testimony, for, in the words of Paul, “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 15:17-19). The resurrection of Christ in whom believers will share in His resurrection (Romans 6:5) is arguably the fundamental doctrine in which the Christian hope rests upon, for if His resurrection did not occur, our hope is lost and our faith is a farce. Therefore, acquiring sufficient evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is essential to Christian apologetics, which Habermas and Licona present the case excellently.

Review: The Minimal Facts Approach

When looking for proof, “proof” needs to be defined. What constitutes proof? Today, we have photographs and film, yet these were not available in the first century. So how should proof be defined? As a general rule, Habermas contends proof as “the standard for belief… when the reasons for accepting it significantly outweigh the reasons for rejecting it” (33). In other words, when evidence for an argument outweighs evidence for against it, this is sufficient proof. However, while discussing the case for the resurrection of Christ, we must remember a person cannot come to faith by reason. God is the worker of conversion through the Holy Spirit (John 6:44; Romans 3:11) (33-34).

To set the case for the resurrection of Christ, Habermas and Licona put in place the minimal facts approach. They list two criteria for this approach: facts that “are well evidenced and nearly every scholar accepts them” (44). At the same time, however, the Christian believes in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), which confesses all of Scripture to be infallible and inerrant. On the other hand, the unbeliever will not believe Scripture to be infallible and inerrant because of seeming “contradictions.” This is where the minimal facts approach serves as a good tool for our case because it can help us avoid debating over inspiration since the case at hand is whether or not Jesus was resurrected, not whether or not inspiration is true. In essence, the minimal facts approach helps us to avoid straw man fallacies from unbelievers who often invoke them.

The Quintet of Facts

Habermas and Licona lay down a “quintet of facts” as they begin their case for the resurrection of Christ, which is what I will be focusing on in this review as well as addressing common errors skeptics make, for the book goes into much more detail beyond these facts. The first fact is that Jesus died by crucifixion. His crucifixion is recorded in all four gospels of the New Testament, yet evidence is also found in the secular writings of Josephus and Tacitus (49). The second fact is that Jesus’ disciples believed He was resurrected and appeared to them. However, a skeptic will object, “Your evidence is from the Bible, and I don’t believe the Bible.” Yet here is where the minimal facts approach gives us aid again. This approach regards “the New Testament as an ancient volume of literature containing twenty-seven separate books and letters” (51). It is not operating from the inspiration of Scripture perspective. Rather, these quintet of facts are being scrutinised under the pragmatism of the minimal facts approach by viewing the Bible as an epic piece of literature, not dogma based on faith. Thus, the minimal facts approach works to appeal to the skeptic’s rational mind and, therefore, avoiding another straw man fallacy.

One significant way in which this approach helps our case is the apostles’ willingness to die for the Gospel. What separates the apostolic martyrs from modern martyrs is that martyrs today die for what they believe to be true, whereas the apostles died for what they knew to be true (59). They walked with Jesus and were eyewitnesses of His resurrection; therefore, they knew the truth. Christians today believe on their account; thus we die in belief. No one willingly dies for what they know to be false, so it is illogical to say they died for something false when they knew it to be true. Just as I cannot tell you what you know to be true, so we cannot say what the apostles knew to be true (especially because they lived thousands of years ago, so what kind of intellectually honest person can make a claim on the minds of antiquated men?). I can, however, tell you what to believe, but I cannot tell you what you know. Only you know what you know; I cannot tell you what you know because I don’t know your mind. Likewise, we do not know the apostles’ mind, so we can only say what they know based on what they told us they knew, which is that Christ is risen.

The third fact is Paul’s sudden conversion to Christianity. Paul was a heavy persecutor of Christians. He believed what he was doing was what God required of him as a Jew. So why would Paul suddenly convert to Christianity on his way to Damascus to persecute them if Jesus’ resurrection were false? “His belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom” (65). Only something drastic could have occurred to have caused Paul to instantly move from passionately hating Christians and killing them to being a Christian himself and suffering the same torturing and murder he put upon them, which Paul himself attributes to Jesus appearing to him. No active persecutor of Christianity would suddenly convert to it unless something drastic happened. (In fact, we still see this today in Muslims who make it their life’s mission to kill Christians and suddenly converting in an instant because Jesus appears to them in a dream.)

The fourth fact is that James, the brother of Jesus, was also suddenly converted. All throughout the gospels we see Jesus’ own brother did not believe He was the Messiah (Mark 3:21, 31; 6:3-4; John 7:5). Yet something drastic happens to him—Jesus appears to him (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) (68).

The last fact is that Jesus’ tomb was empty. However, it does not meet the minimal facts approach since not nearly every scholar accepts it. Yet Habermas contends there is still strong evidence for it and is still accepted by “an impressive majority of critical scholars” (70). Skeptics try to explain this fact away by claiming Jesus’ critics did not expose His body because if they had, His body would not have been able to be recognised. However, Habermas exposes two problems with this view. “First, in the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days” (70). The Dead Sea Scrolls show evidence for this, for they were found in the arid climate of Israel in which the jars were still in good condition and the texts were still readable after thousands of years. I can attest to this fact with my own eyes because I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran myself, which I could still read with my limited Hebrew vocabulary. For example, I remember reading the following text in Hebrew with my own eyes on a Dead Sea scroll:

בְּרֵשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶצ

This several thousand-year-old text is from Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Except the original didn’t have the vowels.) It was amazing being able to read the original Hebrew with my own eyes on a scroll over 2,000-years-old.

In addition to this, “Regardless of the condition of his body, the enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse” (70). If Jesus’ critics actually had His body, they still would have benefited from producing it even if it were unrecognisable because it still would have been enough to dissuade some believers and even “possibly weakening and ultimately toppling the entire movement” of Jesus’ resurrection (70). Since it was the goal of Jesus’ enemies to do exactly this, they had every opportunity to do so, but they never did.

Other Errors Skeptics Commit

Perhaps one of the most convincing evidences of Jesus’ resurrection is the testimony of women. In every single gospel of the New Testament, women are listed as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. This is strange “since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s.” For example, the Jewish Talmud says the following, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women (Talmud, Sotah 19a). The world cannot exist without males and without females—happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b),” and there are others (72). In the historical context of Jesus’ resurrection, women were viewed so horribly that they were not allowed to give testimony in a courtroom, even if they were the eyewitness of a murder. If the resurrection of Jesus were a giant farce, the gospel writers would not have written women as the first witnesses; they would have been men. In fact, Jesus’ very coming into the world hinged on a woman: Mary. Had she not given birth to Jesus, there would be no salvation or resurrection to speak of.

There are several common errors skeptics make that ought to be refuted, which cannot all be covered here. Thus, I will only cover what I believe to be the most common. There are a few fraudulent claims skeptics make about the resurrection. One is that the disciples lied about Jesus’ resurrection or stole the body. Again, we need to be reminded that the lives of the disciples were so radically transformed after the crucifixion that they “were willing to endure imprisonment, sufferings, and even martyrdom” (93). In our own modern times, when politicians are caught in scandals and huge lies they bargain to tell the truth in order to serve a lesser prison sentence or some other deal where they don’t serve a sentence at all. The disciples were imprisoned, tortured, and brutally executed, yet none of them recounted:

Peter was crucified upside down. In fact, he demanded that he be crucified upside down because he felt himself unworthy to die in the same manner Jesus died. Andrew—Peter’s brother—was whipped severely and was tied to a cross rather than nailed so he would suffer longer. James the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Philip was whipped severely and was crucified. Bartholomew was beaten and crucified, but other accounts record he was skinned alive and then beheaded. Thomas was run through with a spear. Matthew the tax collector was stabbed in the back by a swordsman whom King Hertacus sent because he questioned the king’s morals. James the son of Alphaeus was beaten, stoned, survived the stoning, then was beaten to death by his skull being smashed in with a club. Jude was crucified in Edessa. Simon the Zealot was also crucified. Lastly, John was the only one to not have been martyred. However, he was boiled alive, survived, and then was exiled to Patmos where he received the Revelation of Christ. None of these apostles and disciples recounted in spite of their horrible torturing and deaths! No one would die a death like they did if they cunningly produced a giant lie.

There is also the fact that “a mere story propagated by disciples would not have convinced Paul, who was an enemy of the church. Fraud on their part would have been the first thing he would have suspected… Instead of rejecting the claims of Jesus’ resurrection as fraud, Paul was convinced by what he describes as the risen Jesus appearing to him” (95). It is not logical to claim Paul—a faithful persecutor and murderer of Christians—would be easily won over by such a scandal. Especially since he did not suspect Christians of stealing the body. Furthermore, this fraudulent claim fails to account for Jesus’ appearance to Paul.

The other common fraudulent claim is that somebody else stole Jesus’ body. This also would not have been enough to convince Paul. Habermas contends, “If it were reported today that the grave of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith was empty, would those of us who do not embrace Mormonism rush to become Mormons, or would we presume that someone had moved the body” (95-97)? If this would not be enough to convert us, neither would it be enough to convert Paul, especially since he was so loyal in persecuting Christians. Like the first fraudulent claim, this claim also fails to account for Jesus’ appearance to Paul.

Even more significant is the fact that the empty tomb was not enough evidence to make the disciples believe either! Even Mary Magdalene—the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection—”immediately jumped to the conclusion that someone had stolen the body upon discovering the tomb” (97). The empty tomb and even hearing accounts of Jesus appearing to others was not enough for Thomas. The disciples were not convinced by the empty tomb; they were convinced by Jesus appearing to them. Even if this fraudulent claim were true, it “could only call into question the cause of the empty tomb, not the Resurrection itself.” This fraudulent claim “is so weak that additional theories are needed to explain the most crucial data” (97), and the more theories to explain the basic theory, the weaker the argument.

Hallucinations and Delusions

Skeptics also attribute the resurrection to hallucinations and delusions. “A hallucination is a false perception of something that is not there” (105). Habermas concedes that grief hallucinations are possible after losing a loved one. Yet although the apostles grieved, they were joyous after Jesus’ appearance, not bereaved. It is absurd to assume they hallucinated for the rest of their lives, willing to die for their cause. We also know for a fact that “hallucinations are private occurrences, which occur in the mind of the individual. They are not collective experiences. In a group, all of the people may be in the frame of mind to hallucinate, but each experiences hallucinations on the individual basis. Nor will they experience the same hallucination” (106). Even if an entire group of people hallucinates, they never see the same exact thing. So to hold on to the claim that all the apostles hallucinated the same exact thing throughout their entire lives is illogical and not supported by the science of psychology; instead, it is dogmatic at best. This claim also fails to account for Paul’s conversion, who “did not appear to have been in the frame of mind to experience a hallucination, since it seems he hated both Jesus and his followers and believed it was God’s will to stop them. He was far from grieving over Jesus’ death” (107).

Delusions are false beliefs “held with the conviction that it is true in spite of evidence that invalidates the truth” (105). Since the apostles were so willing to die for what they believed in, why not attribute delusions to their actions? Again, this claim also fails to explain the conversion of Paul and James—both of whom were adamantly opposed to Jesus. Because of their hard opposition to Jesus, neither of them had any desire to see Jesus alive and thus were not in a frame of mind to be delusional.

“Discrepancies” and Science as the Measure of Truth

Another common reason for denying the resurrection is because “there are discrepancies among resurrection accounts.” However, since the minimal facts approach is looking at the account historically rather than religiously, it needs to be remembered that “historians do not conclude that an event did not occur because the accounts contain discrepancies” (122). For example, there are discrepancies in the burning of Rome account as far as how big it was and who started it. We know Nero blamed it on the Christians. Was it the Christians, or was it Nero? There are accounts attributing it to Christians while there are others attributing it to Nero. Yet “do these discrepancies nullify the general report that Rome indeed burned” (122)? Of course not. We know it happened because it’s been historically recorded by its eyewitnesses. Just because there are differing accounts on how it happened does not mean it didn’t happen. Likewise, if four people witness a car accident and there are discrepancies in their report, does that mean the car accident didn’t occur? Of course not, that’s absurd. Discrepancies in historical reports do not nullify the historical account.

Most common today is the claim of science as the only measurement of truth. However, skeptics forget and are unwilling to admit that “the scientific method is limited in its ability to observe and test… The scientific method cannot totally eliminate gullibility, other misrepresentations of data, or plain old mistakes made by scientists” (134). While Christians put faith in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, skeptics put faith in the infallibility and inerrancy of scientists who are human beings capable of making mistakes. Somehow, to the skeptic, scientists are among the only group of human beings incapable of committing errors. Using the scientific method as the only rule to measure truth is self-refuting because “the rule that science is the only way to know something is itself unscientific; it cannot be tested” (134). So the claim that only science can prove what is true refutes itself since it cannot prove itself through its own method.

Still, there is the claim that science proves it is impossible for people to come back to life. Science can only prove natural causes, which does not apply to Jesus’ resurrection since the claim is that He was resurrected by unnatural causes—or supernatural causes (136). We believe it was God who raised Jesus. Of course, skeptics will contend they don’t believe in God or the Bible, thus invalidating our argument. Yet again, with the minimal facts approach, the case at hand is whether or not Jesus was resurrected, not whether or not God exists or if the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Since it is about His resurrection, the historical claim is that He was resurrected through supernatural means, not natural means, which science cannot account for or test.

Conclusion

There are many other fraudulent claims against Jesus’ resurrection, which cannot all be covered here. With the few I have gone over, we have seen: “The disciples sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and had appeared to them. A number of outside evidences support the truth of their belief in his resurrection. Since no opposing theories can adequately account for all of the historical evidence, therefore, Jesus’ resurrection is the only plausible explanation” (207). There are many fraudulent claims that cannot account for the disciples’ willingness to die for what they knew to be true, as well as the sudden conversions of Paul and James. Many of these claims are fallacies within themselves, such as claiming group hallucinations of the same exact hallucination when this is impossible, which also does not explain the empty tomb since Jesus’ enemies knew it was empty as well. Another one being claims made from dogmatic faith in science that is self-refuting, since science itself is limited and can only explain natural causes when Jesus was resurrected through unnatural—or supernatural—means. There are many more fraudulent claims Habermas and Licona go through and dismantle, and they go into more detail with the areas I covered, so I highly recommend this book to believers and unbelievers alike. Thus, with the minimal facts approach, Habermas and Licona lay out the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection as far outweighing evidence against it, the only plausible conclusion being that Jesus was resurrected.

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