Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Resurrection

So, I think it's fitting here and now to lay out an argument for the factuality--the historicity--of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth some two thousand years ago. The argument I will lay out is a "minimal facts" approach, one taken by Gary Habermas. (For more detailed accounts of this argument, the reader is referred to Habermas' books The Risen Jesus and Future Hope and The Historical Jesus.) This argument does not assume that (as Christianity claims) the Bible is the inspired word of God and free of error (in the original autographs). Rather, for the sake of argument, this approach uses only those facts about Jesus that are widely acknowledged by scholars of all metaphysical stripes, even those who begin by rejecting any supernatural interpretations. That is, we are here treating the New Testament accounts about Jesus as merely the writings of fallible human beings to which can be applied all the skeptical scrutiny we may choose.

[I myself believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I have chosen to shelve that belief for the sake of this argument. It should be pointed out, however, that if this argument leads to the conclusion that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead in fulfillment of prophecies (including his own) and in vindication of his overall teachings and claims, then acceptance of the inspiration of Scripture would be a very reasonable inference following from that conclusion.]

Here are some of the facts upon which virtually all scholars agree:
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
3. Soon afterward, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.
4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his internment.
5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed, even being willing to die for this belief.
7. The proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, at the beginning of church history.
8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
9. The Gospel message centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
10. Sunday became the primary day for gathering and worshipping.
11. James, the brother of Jesus and a former skeptic, was converted when, he believed, he saw the risen Jesus.
12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer due to an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
We can use these established facts--accepted even by most skeptics and atheists--as a test for the explanatory power of the various ideas about what really happened. That is, any explanation for the alleged resurrection and for the rise of Christianity can be examined to see whether it corresponds to and satisfactorily accounts for each of these facts.

It should be obvious that each and every one of these facts fits perfectly with the Christian explanation. Jesus died, and remained in the tomb until the third day. He was raised from the dead, and really did appear to the disciples and others before ascending to heaven. On this view, the resurrection vindicated—even more than had his (alleged) healings and other miracles—his claims to being Messiah, God, and Lord. The question is: how well and completely do other hypotheses fit these facts?

One alternative explanation that has been offered is the hallucination theory—the idea that the disciples and others each had hallucinations that they took to be the risen Christ. When compared against the list of accepted facts, this theory fails to account for points 4, 11, and 12. That is, this idea doesn’t explain the empty tomb or the conversion of either James or Saul, two men with no emotional motivation to see a risen Jesus in whom they did not believe in the first place. The disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise, either before or even shortly after they first saw him. Moreover, the different people, times, and places involved in the circumstances surrounding these appearances argue strongly against the idea that all involved hallucinations. In addition, hallucinations do not usually account for life-long transformations of an entire group of people. Subjective visions do not explain the willingness of so many people to die for their belief in the risen Jesus. Other problems with this hypothesis could be demonstrated, but these are enough to show why scholars have abandoned it.

Every other naturalistic theory likewise fails to account for all of these facts in the satisfactory way that the Christian explanation does. Such theories include the wrong tomb theory, the unknown tomb theory, the swoon theory, the Passover plot theory, the ideas that the body of Jesus was stolen by the disciples or by the authorities, and others. One of the most popular—at least in American university courses—is the theory that the resurrection was a legend that developed in the decades following Christ’s life. Despite its popularity, this theory fails to account for any of the twelve historical facts in the list, and further fails to account for the fact that belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus can be traced to within two-five years of the crucifixion event. All of these naturalistic theories have been abandoned by serious historical scholars, even liberal ones.

Obviously, that Jesus actually rose from the dead cannot be shrugged off as merely an unexpected conclusion of an academic exercise. Rather, it comes with several ramifications, some of them both important and personal. This is especially true since Jesus’ earthly message related his resurrection to the existence and activity of God. Indeed, a reasonable conclusion that flows from his resurrection is that it was God who raised him and that this raising represented God’s approval and vindication of Jesus’ overall teaching. Since a central part of what Jesus taught had to do with the “Kingdom of God,” including salvation and eternal life and how to obtain them, the conclusion that these teachings were approved by God has universal application, and demands the serious consideration of anyone seeking to understand the meaning of life. The power of resurrection that transformed Jesus’ early disciples and radically altered the course of human history continues to this day to change lives, to offer meaning, purpose, and life that is both abundant and eternal.

(This post first appeared 9 April 2007.)

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