(Picture courtesy of BiblePlaces.com)
“The resurrection of Jesus? That is a matter of faith…not history!”
All too often we hear this phrase, or something very similar to it. Is it true though? Should we as Christians adopt this sort of attitude when dealing with the resurrection of Jesus? The answer is a resounding “No!” I would like to challenge us as Christians to examine the very foundation of Christianity itself and treat it as such: that foundation is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Paul, who wrote 13 of the New Testament books and was an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus writes the following in his letter to the Corinthian church,
“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”?
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;
and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith[ref]It is important to note here that the English word “faith” is being used here to translate a Greek word in which the closest English equivalent is “trust.” So the notion of the English word being associated with phrases like “blind,” or “leap of” is simply irrelevant in the context of Christianity. If I trust someone then I could give good reasons for doing so. Same thing with Christianity. We are to trust in/have faith in Jesus as a person and do that because of the truth of His resurrection from the dead![/ref].
In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ– whom He did not raise up if in fact the dead are not raised.
For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
Therefore those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished.
If we have placed our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” I Cor. 15:12-19
For Paul, and the other New Testament writers for that matter, the resurrection of Jesus is the very foundation that our faith rests upon. If the resurrection did not happen, then Christianity is false and people are to pity us! Faith and history work together, they don’t oppose one another. Given its tantamount importance, shouldn’t we defend it as an actual historical event, especially if we have evidence for it? Unfortunately this isn’t the case in many churches, we just share our narrative and hope others believe it as well. However, we should be Christians only if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead. If not, then no rational adult should be a Christian. Fortunately we are at a point in history where we are rich in historical evidence to support the claim “God raised Jesus from the dead.” As Christians we need to get familiar with the historical evidence and deal with objections to it so as to help others understand the truth of Christianity.
There are different approaches to defending the resurrection of Jesus and making a case for it historically and they involve inductive reasoning. We compile the evidence available and then use what is called “inference to the best explanation,” and try to determine what is the best explanation of the facts. There are also some criteria that historians use to help guide us in determining what a best explanation would be. I found C. Behan McCullagh’s work on this to be outstanding[ref]C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, pg. 19[/ref]. I became familiar with his work through two top resurrection scholars, William Lane Craig[ref]William Lane Craig, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?, in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, pg. 143[/ref] and Michael Licona[ref]Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 108-114[/ref]. Once the evidence is examined, and hypotheses weighed, the best explanation is that “God raised Jesus from the dead.” In this article I am not defending the resurrection, just trying to help us see the importance of defending it historically. There will be future articles where I will survey the evidence and look at various attempts to deny its historicity, but again I want us to focus on seeing the importance of a historical approach to the resurrection and introduce you to some of the various approaches to its defense as well as provide some resources for you to get started.
I will list a couple of approaches taken by different scholars to defend the resurrection and explain each one briefly, as well as provide a listing of resources at the end of the article. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona have coauthored a book, “The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus,” in which they use what is called a minimal facts approach. They give a list of historical facts that many New Testament scholars/critics will grant are historical. As they take away more and more facts from the list more and more scholars/critics agree with the facts on the list. You can use these facts to make your case and show that the inference to the best explanation is that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”
My favorite approach is that of William Lane Craig in which he establishes and defends three (sometimes he adds the burial of Jesus and counts it as a fourth fact) historical facts agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars[ref]William lane Craig, Reasonable Faith 3rd Edition, pg. 361-400[/ref]:
1. The tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of His women follows three days after His crucifixion.
2. We have multiple independently attested eye witness accounts of appearances of Jesus alive after His death.
3. How do we explain the origin of the disciple’s belief in the resurrection if it did not occur knowing how foreign this concept was to a Jew in the first century..
After giving multiple lines of support for each of the three (or four if he includes the burial of Jesus) he assesses each one in light of the criteria for the inference to the best explanation and also examines the many failed theories offered throughout history and shows how they fail and that the resurrection of Jesus is by far the best explanation of the historical evidence.
I pray this Easter you reflect deeply on the importance of the resurrection of Jesus and the implications of its truth. I also pray that we can all start growing every year in making a case for the truth of the resurrection and being able to show others that it is an actual historical event and that its truth is the very foundation of Christianity itself. I have provided below a short starter list of resurrection resources to help aid you in your studies on this vital subject!
1. On Guard by William Lane Craig, chapters 8 and 9
2. Facts to show the resurrection is not fiction, William Lane Craig video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AduPVkqbis).
3. The Son Rises by William Lane Craig
4. “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?” by William Lane Craig in the book Jesus Under Fire
1. Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, chapter 8
2. The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
3. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael Licona
4. The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright
There are many more resources that could be listed but these are my favorites and are more than enough to get anyone started in their studies on this foundational topic. Enjoy and have a great resurrection weekend!