I have long been skeptical of putting too much confidence in evidential arguments for the foundational pieces of Christianity. There are, I think, several fatal flaws to that apologetic methodology and the reading I did in such books as Evidence that Demands a Verdict and The Case for Christ always left me feeling encouraged…but unsatisfied.
Despite these reservations, however, I do believe that such scholarship is an important support and encouragement of our faith. I’d not done much reading in this area for quite a while so when my mentor directed me to a video by Gary Habermas and, subsequently, I heard of his research into the resurrection of Christ, I decided to refresh my memory and see how God might use his book to “strengthen my supports,” as it were.
The book is well done. Habermas and his co-author, Michael Licona, present a minimal-facts approach to apologetics in which, for the sake of argument, they agree to only use those historical facts which are accepted by the vast majority of all scholars, even the skeptical/atheistic ones. They jettison – again, for the sake of argument – any assumption of the inspiration of Scripture, the authorship of the various Biblical books, or any defense of the resurrection of Christ that falls outside the bounds of these minimal facts. What they are left with – and the footnotes and references are extensive – are these:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- The disciples proclaimed and believed that he rose and appeared to them.
- The church persecutor Paul was suddenly converted to Christianity.
- The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly converted to Christianity.
Then, the authors add a bonus fact that doesn’t have the near-unanimous acceptance of the other four, but that is still accepted by a significant majority of scholars
5. The tomb was empty.
These five facts are then used to demonstrate the failure of the alternative, non-miraculous explanations for the resurrection of Christ. You think the disciples had a group hallucination? Even if we granted that such a thing was possible, this would not account for the appearance of Christ to Paul, his appearance to James, and the empty tomb. You think the disciples lied and stole the body? This fails to account for their genuine belief that they saw him risen, nor for the claim that Paul and James both saw the resurrected Christ as well. Perhaps you claim that Paul experience guilt over his persecution of Christians and, in an act of unity and repentance, converted to Christianity (yes, apparently that’s a real theory). You can see how this would fail to account for the other, near-universally accepted facts.
It is, I think, I powerful argument. It avoids all the tangents that skeptics might take a Christian down – arguments about errors in the Bible, questionable moral actions by God, the supposed incompatibility of modern science and faith, etc. – and sticks to the resurrection of Christ.
If Christ, a dead man, was raised by God back to life…then what? It is a question that must be taken very seriously, regardless of any other questions one might have about Christianity.
Though my problems with evidential arguments persist, and despite the fact that the shorter sections in the book dealing with issues like naturalism and the deity of Christ were less thorough and compelling, this is a great tool in the belt of any Christian, either in dealing with a skeptical world or in buttressing his or her own faith.
NOTE: A quick note on my reservations with evidential arguments. I’ll give two – with embarrassing brevity – and then refer you to books by those who can articulate them far better than I.
- Evidential arguments often assume (overtly or otherwise) that such things as history and science are neutral ground upon which to debate. We simply lay out the bare “facts” and from there we find the truth. This is false. There is no “neutral” ground. The facts before us are always being interpreted by a worldview that includes presuppositions (base truths that form the foundation of all other reasoning). If a person, for example, assumes philosophical materialism as his starting point, no amount of “evidence” will compel them to accept the existence of a supernatural miracle. If a person rejects the reality of material things (yes, that’s an actual position), then arguing about a body and a cross will make little headway. Therefore, an evidential argument will only make sense if there is substantial agreement on common ground at the outset. Thankfully for the Christian, reality predisposes humanity to share a Christian’s view of a knowable, ordered, lawful, material universe directed by consistent cause-and-effect relationships (even though their own materialism or buddhism or whatever doesn’t actually support such conclusions) and that is why evidential discussions can still be profitable.
- Theologically, we are called to submit our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to the Lord. If one takes the position that evidence must be weighed in order to judge the truth of the claims of God Almighty, and that one has the authority to make such judgements, then that person is already sinning in their failure to submit their mind to the Lord and to His Word in Scripture. God, in his mercy, allows us our doubts and has provided abundant answers for them, but ultimately he says, as Jesus did to the man in Hell, “if Moses was not sufficient for you to believe, then even if you see a resurrection it will make little difference.”
I highly recommend these four books on the subject: