Following The Evidence Wherever It Leads

Posted: November 11, 2010 in Historical apologetics, Resurrection of Jesus
Tags: , , ,

by Matt Lefebvre

In a previous article, What Makes Christianity Different?, I discussed a minimal facts approach as set forth by Gary Habermas, among others, in defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  After setting out the defense, I said that it would be “worth my time to write about the opposing views in the future, for if this is really as important as I made it out to be, it is certainly worth defending.”  So, if you have understanding of what The Minimal Facts Approach is, then you are ready to have a look at the alternate theories.  Most of this will be from Gary Habermas’ and Michael Licona’s book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (p.84-131), unless otherwise noted. For a story to be embellished it means that there was a narrative in the beginning, but over time, the story grew and more details were added.  The fact that even critical scholars question very few words in the New Testament (due to the well attested textual purity) means that legends had to develop before the apostles put the stories into writing. There are a few problems with this.

  1. The resurrection is the earliest doctrine taught through the sermons in Acts, but also 1 Corinthians 15, the tradition of which has been dated by even critical scholars to 35AD, existing as an early church creed.
  2. Paul came to Christ through what he described as an encounter with the risen Christ, which is also dated very early, 35AD or even earlier.
  3. James also was converted by an appearance of Jesus and not a legend that developed over time.
  4. The assertion that the resurrection accounts are due to legend needs evidence, for there are ancient accounts that have been embellished, but not all have, so each case must be considered individually.

The non-historical genre theory says that the disciples did not really intend to communicate that Jesus had literally risen from the dead, but were just trying to honour Him and communicate a message, like a divine fable.  Though this may seem reasonable and non-threatening, it has serious problems, not to mention undermining the resurrection.

  1. It cannot explain the empty tomb, which is corroborated by texts outside the New Testament, as well as the canonical Gospels.
  2. Considering Paul’s anti-Christian attitude, he would not have been convinced by a nice story or fable.
  3. The same goes for James, who was a pious Jew and would not have forsaken the law for a Jewish fable.
  4. Just because non-historical genre existed at the time, it does not mean the disciples were using it and evidence needs to be presented for that case.
  5. The accounts make reference to the fact that they were meant to be perceived as historical rather than mythical.  Peter and Paul make reference to the contrast of King David being buried, but Jesus being resurrected.
  6. The responses of early critics assumed that Jesus’ resurrection was historical, since they offered an alternate explanation for the possibility of the resurrection.

Skeptics often cite examples of dying and rising gods in other religions to suggest that Christians merely copied or got inspiration from these myths.  This myths indeed exist, but there are great reasons for rejecting them and maintaining Jesus’ resurrection to be historical.

  1. The accounts in other religions tend to be unclear, vague, and unlike Jesus’ resurrection, so they would not be considered parallels by today’s scholars.  Indeed, the first parallel that comes close to resembling Jesus’ resurrection is the story of Adonis, which appeared after 150AD, over 100 years past the time of Jesus!  In addition, in the earliest versions of the story of Adonis, there is no death or resurrection reported.  As Craig Blomberg put it on page 138-139 of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, “None of the ancient myths and stories of dying and rising gods refers to real human individuals known to have lived among the very people narrating the stories within their living memory.”
  2. Miracle accounts and resurrection claims in other religions lack evidence and can be easily accounted for by opposing theories.
  3. Miracle and resurrection claims in other religions do not explain the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and the idea that they all fit together in a mythical genre of the day has already been dealt with above.  Craig Blomberg writes concerning the Jewish mindset that while the Jews were expecting resurrection, “no pre-Christian Jew anticipated the resurrection of one person, even the Messiah, in advance of the general resurrection.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.139).  So it would not have been made up.

Fraud 1 refers to the belief that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and made up the resurrection accounts.  This was the earliest accusation from the Jews and it continued for at least another 2 centuries, but the evidence strongly suggests that this is not what happened.

  1. Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples were radically changed from being afraid to being bold, and they believed they had seen the risen Jesus.  This transformation was so strong, they were willing to suffer and die for this cause.  As I mentioned before, it is significant that they were willing to die, because liars make poor martyrs.  A suicide bomber might blow himself up because he has been told it is good and true and worthy, and of course, it comes with great reward in paradise.  However, the disciples were not willing to die for what they had been told, but what they had seen and touched.  Thomas was even quite skeptical at just the word of others, but proclaimed Jesus as Lord and God when he saw Him and touched Him (John 20:24-28).
  2. The church persecutor Paul would certainly have suspected that the disciples had committed fraud, as the Jewish leaders were saying, but his conversion to Christianity shows that he truly believed that Jesus had risen and not merely that the disciples’ story sounded convincing.  Again, it is not like we see today where people just change religions all over the place, but in a hostile environment, with presuppositions that Jesus was not the Messiah, but rather a false prophet who got what He deserved on the cross. Paul all of a sudden is radically changed by an appearance of the risen Lord and starts proclaiming Christ, at the risk of his own life.
  3. James is a similar case, in that his skepticism would not have been overturned by a fanciful story.  His devotion to the Jewish law would keep him from chasing the vain ambitions of his brother’s friends.

Fraud 2 is the assertion that someone other than the disciples stole the body.  This is a response to the widely accepted fact that the disciples truly believed they had seen the risen Christ, so the belief is that someone else stole the body and when the disciples saw the empty tomb, they concluded that Jesus must have risen from the dead.  However, this theory has not been widely held in the 20th century for various reasons.

  1. Again, the church persecutor Paul would not have been convinced by the empty tomb alone, but would have very naturally suspected that the body had been stolen.
  2. Neither would the empty tomb alone have convinced James, who, like Paul, was converted through a resurrection appearance.
  3. The fact of the empty tomb did not convince Jesus’ followers that He had risen from the dead, with the exception of John.  In fact, Mary Magdalene thought that someone had indeed stolen the body, until Jesus was revealed to her, so it does not follow that the empty tomb itself would have been particularly convincing.
  4. Even if it were true that someone stole or moved the body, it only calls into question the cause of the empty tomb, not Jesus’ resurrection, for it is the appearances that were convincing.  After all, what was to stop Jesus from resurrecting in whatever place He was moved to, if it were even plausible that He was moved at all; the guard of soldiers at the tomb suggesting that this was not the case.

The wrong tomb theory has all the problems of Fraud 2, with a couple additional objections.

  1. No sources suggest that they went to the wrong tomb and the willingness of the Roman and Jewish authorities to stop the movement would have certainly been reason enough for them to bring the body out to clear up the misunderstanding.
  2. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, would be a well-known figure and the location of his tomb would certainly be known.  The fact that this tomb was not shown to be the correct burial place of Jesus, with Him still dead inside, but rather that the claim was made that the body was stolen, shows that the location of the tomb was not in question.

With the evidence being so strong for Jesus being seen alive after His crucifixion, some resort to saying that Jesus might not have been dead.  This has also been called the “swoon theory” with its belief that Jesus merely appeared to be dead, recuperated in the tomb, and then showed his nail-scarred hands to the disciples.  There are a few problems with this, not only noticed by those who believe in the resurrection.

  1. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March of 1986 studied the effects of scourging and crucifixion on a victim.  Scourging was meant to weaken the victim to just short of death.  The biggest problem, though, was the issue of breathing, or more precisely, not breathing, on the cross.  The feet and hands of the crucifixion victim would be nailed, but in order to take the pressure off the nailed feet, the victim could hang on the hands.  However, in this down position, it would be very hard to breathe, so the excruciating pain it would take to push up on the feet would be the only way to release the muscles needed to exhale.  The act of breaking the legs, documented in the Gospels, would hasten death, because the victim would not be able to push up to breathe and death would follow quickly.  The Roman soldiers had seen this many times and would know when a person was dead.  Just to be sure, though, a spear thrust into the right side of the heart would finish the job, or show that the body was already a corpse, as in the case of Jesus, because the sac that surrounds the heart, the pericardium, would be ruptured, and blood and water would flow.
  2. The German scholar, D.F. Strauss described the implausibility of Jesus, having been scourged and crucified, pushing the stone away from the tomb with His pierced hands, walking blocks on His wounded feet, and then appearing to His disciples in a way that would make Him seem risen.  The response would be to get Jesus to a doctor, but not that He was the risen Lord who could offer them a resurrected body like His.  Strauss was not saying this as a believer, but rather he thought that hallucinations accounted for the resurrection appearances, to which we will turn next.
  3. To add one more point first, Paul speaks of Jesus’ body as glorious (Philippians 3:21), which would not fit a swooned Jesus.

A common thing for a person who experiences grief over the death of a loved one is to see that loved one through a hallucination.  A hallucination is distinct from an illusion, like seeing the appearance of water on the road on a hot day, for that is simply misinterpreting what is actually there, whereas a hallucination is seeing something that is not there at all. The disciples were certainly sincere in talking about what they saw, but perhaps they did not really experience what they thought they saw.  However, this view fails on a number of points.

  1. Hallucinations are private occurrences and not collective experiences.  All people might be in the same frame of mind in a certain place, but they will not have the same hallucination, because the hallucinations are like dreams.
  2. Hallucinations do not explain the empty tomb, because if all the disciples saw hallucinations of Jesus, His body would still have been in the tomb.
  3. Paul, in a frame of mind that persecuted the church, did not appear to be in the frame of mind that would lend itself to hallucination.
  4. James would likewise have seen Jesus as a false Messiah and as one cursed by God, so he would not likely be in the frame of mind to want Jesus back, since he was an unbeliever during Jesus’ ministry.
  5. There are too many variables to say that all the people in different places would be in the same frame of mind.

Group hallucinations may be impossible, but group delusions, embracing the same false beliefs, are not.  While this may sound like a challenging alternative, it fails to account for the known historical data.

  1. Delusions do not explain the empty tomb, as is the case with any psychological objection.
  2. Paul would not have accepted this delusion, not being the least bit remorseful that Jesus was dead, but rather was persecuting those who followed Jesus.
  3. James, a skeptic during Jesus’ life, would certainly remain a skeptic after Jesus’ death, as the things that did not convince him during Jesus’ powerful ministry would certainly not convince him after Jesus died.

Vision theories seem to be a way to get around saying “hallucination” and the problems that accompany that term.  However, vision theories, though more vague, still fall victim to the same problems of other theories.

  1. If the skeptic says that vision means “vision literature” this is the same as what has been answered under “Legend-Non-historical genre”.
  2. An objective vision is Jesus somehow appearing to a person in a glorified state.
  3. A subjective vision is basically a hallucination or a dream and is therefore answered under “Hallucinations”.
  4. Similar to other psychological explanations, visions do not account for the empty tomb
  5. Also, the bodily nature of the appearances attests to the fact that the appearances were anything but visions.

Due to the failure of other theories, combination theories have been offered to explain the resurrection data.  However, rather than adding solutions, they only add problems.

  1. Combinations of theories generally lead to higher improbabilities, because all sub-theories must be true for the whole theory to be true.  5 theories with a 50% probability leads to a combined probability of 3%.
  2. While accounting for more of the data, many of the problems that were there individually, still exist.  In thinking that the disciples stole the body, and James and Paul experienced psychological problems due to their frame of mind, both still remain unlikely.
  3. The theories seem ad hoc, or contrived just to explain the data, so it makes the skeptic seem like they do not really want to know what really happened.
  4. Even if no problems or ad hoc elements were in the theories, the burden of proof remains on those who bring opposing theories to say that it is more than just possible, but the most probable.

It is often said that the Gospels cannot seem to agree on the details of the resurrection.  This leads to the assertion that we cannot know what happened, but there are problems with such a conclusion.

  1. Discrepancies, at the most, call the complete accuracy of the Gospels into question, but not their general trustworthiness in historical matters.
  2. Historians do not say an event did not occur because there are discrepancies in accounts.
  3. The differences may indicate that the Gospels are independent accounts, counting as independent sources, since they don’t look like copies, which would be more unified.  Craig Blomberg goes in to detail to discuss the alleged contradictions in the Gospels, but on page 141 of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels he simply states “…the very presence of limited divergence in otherwise parallel narratives can itself testify to their reliability.”
  4. Many, if not all, alleged discrepancies have been given a coherent and plausible answer.

While bias may seem to initially be a legitimate objection, there are also problems with this theory.

  1. Paul certainly had a bias, but it was against Christianity and not for it!
  2. James also found himself in a place to be neutral in regard to, if not biased against, this new Jewish sect.
  3. Bias does not automatically lead to the person distorting the facts.  In the case of the Nazis, Gentile historians tended to downplay the facts, while Jewish historians were dedicated to getting all the facts straight to expose what really happened.
  4. Rejecting interested parties means rejecting most of the standard historical sources.
  5. The genetic fallacy is confusing why something is true with why something is believed.  Some people accuse those who defend the resurrection of being biased because they are Christians, while such accusers think of themselves as objective.  They then think of the disciples in the same way, as being biased and therefore untrustworthy.  However, how a person came to believe in something does not have an effect on whether it is true or not.  Something can be true even if nobody believes it and something can be false even if everyone believes it.  Not to mention the fact that I can name a few people who set out to disprove Christianity (Frank Morison, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell), but found themselves coming to very different conclusions when they looked at the evidence.
  6. Ad hominem arguments are arguing against the person and not the content of their argument.  It is worth noting that a person may be biased and correct, or likewise, a person may be unbiased and incorrect.  In the end, it is the data that must be accounted for and I contend that it strongly favours Jesus’ resurrection.  While some might accept that something happened, they still do not quite come all the way to saying that it was a resurrection.  This might in fact be due to a bias, but in any case, it is the subject of our last objection.

A response to the convincing arguments for Jesus’ resurrection can be that something definitely happened to the disciples, but we will never know what it is.  This seemingly safe position has a few things that need to be said about it.

  1. This response is a rejection of the conclusion, not the evidence, so the evidence still stands.
  2. The issue is not what we do not know, but what we do know.  Modern critics even admit the failure of alternate theories and the facts cannot be ignored, especially since this is only employing minimal facts, those which are so well evidenced that virtually all critical scholars who address these issues admit them.  If the evidence points to resurrection and opposing theories fail, there is nothing left to hide behind in making confident assertions.
  3. The context in which it is said to have occurred adds to the likelihood that it did occur.  Jesus claimed to be divine, was recognized as a miracle worker, even by His enemies, and there is also other evidence for the existence of God that makes this suggestion that Jesus rose from the dead very plausible.  Indeed, other people were raised from the dead in the Old Testament and even during Jesus’ ministry.  However, none of them claimed to be divine, nor did they predict their death and resurrection as a sign of this divinity.  Jesus both predicted it and accomplished it, so we have in Jesus’ resurrection a divine miracle that is surprisingly well evidenced, and therefore, demands our attention.

I titled this article “Following the Evidence Wherever it Leads” because I am aware of how western society operates.  Arguments are not necessarily about the truth, but about who argues the best.  I acknowledge that in such a hostile environment, I do not do very well, because I am an internal thinker and it is hard for me to keep up and respond to questions that I may have an answer to, but are just coming too quickly.  On the other hand, I do not think it is the best that a debate is won by the debater with the best rhetorical skills, but I would hope that truth would be the pursuit of those on both sides.  I find these last 2 objections quite fitting to finish with, because it represents the opinion of those who just do not want to face the facts, and thus, the consequences of actually having to change their beliefs.  However, as we have seen, a biased person can tell the truth, just as an unbiased person can be wrong.  I leave you with a quote by N.T. Wright from page 89 of The New Testament and the People of God and I hope that you have seen enough evidence to follow where it leads and take N.T. Wright’s words to heart: “It must be asserted most strongly that to discover that a particular writer has a ‘bias’ tells us nothing whatever about the value of the information he or she presents.  It merely bids us be aware of the bias (and of our own, for that matter), and to assess the material according to as many sources as we can.”

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