If the resurrection happened, nothing else matters. If the resurrection didn’t happen, nothing at all matters.
The whole world turns upon the audacious claim of the resurrection. There is simply no truth as critically important as the truth celebrated at Easter and on every Lord’s Day. Without the physically embodied resurrection of Jesus from the dead, our faith is futile, a waste of time. But if the resurrection is true, our hopes are not simply fantasies, our salvation is not simply a wish, and our faith is not in vain. If the resurrection didn’t happen, Jesus should be dismissed as a liar and a fraud. If the resurrection did happen, Jesus demands and deserves our very lives.
Apologetically, there is no more important issue for us to talk about than the resurrection. Every other issue pales in comparison. So, what do we say? How do we mount a defense for a claim as outrageous and unlikely as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
First of all, it should be pointed out why it is that most people don’t believe in the resurrection. Most people don’t believe because of the simple reality that DEAD PEOPLE STAY DEAD!. Our uniform experience is that death is permanent. So the resurrection didn’t happen because resurrections don’t happen. Understand that there is circularity to this argument though. People who say such things have not really taken the time to explore the claim. They are simply dismissing the claim based on an assumption (perhaps a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nevertheless). I like to address this assumption with this illustration:
Imagine you were able to go back in time 700 years in the past. Ignoring time travel protocol you decide to start up a conversation with a random 14th century man while drinking pints at the local inn. In the midst of this conversation, you try to impress this ancient man with tales of wonder. There is a whole other continent that has yet to be discovered. We will develop the ability to communicate over long distances by talking into metal devices. Donald Trump will be president. Oh, and also, men will be able to step into a metal tube; we will set it on fire propelling them into the darkness of space where they will eventually land upon the moon. They will walk gleefully upon the surface of the moon and then return safely back home. How do you suppose 13th century man would respond? He would likely conclude that you’ve had too many pints or that you were a witch. Of course it’s impossible that anyone would walk on the moon. But we know different. Walking on the moon is only implausible, not impossible. We would say something similar about the resurrection. It is certainly implausible. Highly implausible. That’s kind of what makes it special. But simply because it is implausible does not make it necessarily impossible. The evidence for such a claim needs to be seriously engaged before dismissing it.
So what do we say? How do we make a coherent argument in support of the physical resurrection of Jesus? Well, this has been done by a large number of apologists, scholars, and historians through the years. There have been tens of thousands of pages written both at the popular and the academic level in defense of the resurrection. One of the best academic treatments is N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. One of the best popular level treatments is Gary Habermas and Mike Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
I’m particularly indebted to Habermas and Licona for their apologetic approach. I’ve happily stolen a lot of their arguments and ideas through the years. Habermas has developed what he calls a “Minimal Facts Approach” to arguing for the resurrection. You can see several of his articles here. (Someone needs to talk to him about his awful font however.) A minimal facts approach is basically a lowest common denominator argument. He only makes arguments based on facts that the vast majority of scholars agree upon. He puts a great deal of emphasis especially on the facts that even skeptical scholars agree upon. Based only upon the minimal facts, you can argue that the resurrection of Jesus best accounts for the data that we have.
I’ve adapted the minimal facts approach for my own use. I’ve come up with five minimal facts. These are all facts that are overwhelmingly acknowledged and agreed upon even by skeptics. These are also facts that must be explained satisfactorily by a skeptic if a non-resurrection theory is to have any value. In other words, a non-resurrection theory must account for all of these facts in order to be effective as a theory. In my experience with skeptics, they often have an explanation for one or two but never all five. When they do try to explain all five facts, they are usually left to propose multiple grand conspiracy theories which oftentimes contradict each other and common sense. Again, a theory must explain all five of these facts better than the resurrection in order to seriously undermine belief in the resurrection.
So, here are my five minimal facts:
- Crucifixion. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Even non-Christian historians like Tacitus and Josephus acknowledge this historical fact. Contemporary skeptics like Bart Ehrman acknowledge and even argue for the historical existence of Jesus.
- Testimony. The earliest Christian witness was shaped by the resurrection. This point is routinely misunderstood by skeptics. I’m not asking anyone to believe in the early testimony. I’m simply asking them to believe that the early testimony exists. The fact is that the earliest testimony of Jesus from those who knew him includes eye witness accounts. Among other things that could be said, these eye witness accounts are early (1 Corinthians 15 probably can be dated to about 10 years after the life of Jesus), are often embarrassing in their details, and lack theological speculation or integration. (I often like to have my students compare Mark’s account of the resurrection with the second century Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Peter is exactly what a legendary account should look like. This account doesn’t contain the embarrassing detail of the women finding the tomb. It also contains clearly legendary details like a talking cross!) A skeptic has to explain the phenomena of these early accounts. Clearly the disciples of Jesus thought they saw or claimed they saw something.
- Tomb. Jesus was buried in a well-known tomb, and the body was never produced. The first Christians were clear about where they claimed Jesus was buried – in the tomb of a well-known and wealthy man. Craig Evans and others have explained how this fits with first century burial practices. But nevertheless, a skeptic has to explain the phenomena of an empty tomb. Why was the body of Jesus never found or produced in the face of such an audacious claim?
- Disciples. Jesus’ disciples were converted to the point of death. This includes noteworthy skeptics like Thomas, Paul, and James. It is true that people die for delusions and falsehoods every day. This is tragic. But the disciples are unique in that they would have had to give up their livelihoods and eventually their lives for a lie that they knew was untrue. How many people are willing to be killed in gruesome ways for a lie that they made up? You also have to wonder (and N.T. Wright does a good job with this) would the belief in a crucified and resurrected Messiah even have existed within the worldview of these disciples? The change in the disciples demands an explanation.
- Church. The continued existence and expansion of the Church is a fact that demands some sort of explanation. People don’t like this fact. They will quickly point out the fact that Islam is growing like crazy – even faster than Christianity. They are right. Just because a religious movement exists is not a guarantee of its truth. But keep in mind, this is only one of the minimal facts. The Church happens to still exist. Jesus happens to still change lives. An obscure Galilean peasant has somehow transformed history. Taken by itself, this fact alone would fail to prove the resurrection, but when taken with the other facts, the existence of the Church provides a powerful testimony.