By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the argument from Jesus’ resurrection. Please see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 if you have not read them yet.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Resurrection-Part5

3. The best explanation of these phenomena is that God raised Jesus from the dead

 

What I hope to be clear from all that I have written above is that these facts surrounding the claim of Jesus’ resurrection rest on solid historical grounds.  This is not extremely controversial, since it is attested to by the majority of scholars of the subject.  Two quotes from Reginald Fuller illustrate the point well.

“That within a few weeks after the crucifixion Jesus’ disciples came to believe [Jesus’ resurrection] is one of the indisputable facts of history.”

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.” (The Foundations of New Testament Christology, p.142).

However, I also hope that the implausibility of the naturalistic hypotheses discussed has become evident as well.  While some may be content with agreement on the historicity of the minimal facts, I endeavor to take the issue further.  I believe that, in this case, the failure of alternative explanations to explain what the early church claimed about Jesus must lead us to ask if there could still legitimately be doubt about the resurrection they were preaching so vehemently.  So then the question remains regarding what the most plausible explanation actually is.  Of course, I have made no secret of the fact, even in discussing the purely historical factors, that I consider God to have raised Jesus from the dead, and that this is the best explanation of the historical evidence we have available to us.  It might seem strange to some to interject a statement of theology into a historical discussion, but I believe it is required in this particular case.  I base this both on the inadequacy of naturalistic explanations and on the unique nature of the historical and religious context surrounding Jesus.

Although I have only looked at four alternate hypotheses above, I did not pick the ones that I thought were the weakest, while sweeping the best objections to the facts of the resurrection under the rug.  Rather, I chose both popular and scholarly objections that either have had major proponents in the past or have major proponents currently.  Again, I could mention that I have addressed various naturalistic hypotheses in my other articles on the resurrection based on the minimal facts approach, but a crucial point to recognize is that the failure of these alternate hypotheses has been acknowledged, even by some who did not previously believe in Jesus’ resurrection.  Many examples of this could be given, but one stands out.  Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish scholar, actually accepted that Jesus rose from the dead, although he did not become a Christian (about which I will have more to say below concerning the context of the resurrection).  In his own words, “In regard to the future resurrection of the dead, I am and remain a Pharisee.  Concerning the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, I was for decades a Sadducee.  I am no longer a Sadducee.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, p.125).  To decode what he meant here, a major difference between Pharisees and Sadducees was that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and the Sadducees did not (Acts 23:8), so even though he denied for a long time that Jesus was resurrected on Easter Sunday, he subsequently changed his view in that respect.  What led to this radical affirmation?  Well, he looked at what happened with Jesus’ disciples, considered the different explanations, and came to the conclusion that the best explanation was actually that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Not only that, but after considering some of the proposals of liberal scholars (Rudolf Bultmann being one of them) to explain away the literal resurrection, he was at a loss for how they could put forward such proposals.

Pinchas Lapide

“I cannot rid myself of the impression that some modern Christian theologians are ashamed of the material fact of the resurrection.  Their varying attempts at dehistoricizing the Easter experience which give the lie to all four evangelists are simply not understandable to me in any other way.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, p.130).

It was not that Lapide had some sort of faith experience and thus was compelled to accept the resurrection, but on the contrary, he looked at the evidence and overcame his previous skepticism.  Ironically, this man who does not have faith in Jesus criticizes some who claim to have faith in Jesus for not looking at the facts as he has and denying the resurrection that he affirms. This is not only a significant point for the strength of the resurrection hypothesis, but also against alternate hypotheses.  Indeed, it has been noted by many that the failure of two thousand years’ worth of attempts to explain away the resurrection of Jesus is itself witness to the strength of the claim.  As NT Wright puts it, “It is worthy of note that, despite the somewhat desperate attempts of many scholars over the last two hundred years (not to mention critics since at least Celsus [2nd century]), no such explanation has been found.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.706-707).  In light of the failure of all such naturalistic hypotheses, Gary Habermas observes, “Comparatively few scholars today pursue the naturalistic theories that were so prevalent a century ago.  This point is emphasized, not to deny that one might be revived from time to time, but only to show that it is generally conceded that the known facts are sufficient to refute these alternative views.” (In Defense of Miracles, p.272).  To this assessment I would simply add that my refutations of the various theories of this sort above were not included because I consider them serious challenges to the resurrection hypothesis, but because I see them as common objections that carry very little actual weight in regard to explaining the Christian faith.  As I have already pointed out, these theories are inadequate to explain just one fact among the minimal facts, and are thus not serious contenders for explaining all the facts.  To give an example, in returning to the “even if” clauses, even if I ignored the fact that hallucinations are not sufficient to explain the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them, it would still not explain the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb.  After all, if Jesus only appeared to the disciples in some subjective sense, this would not require that the tomb that contained Jesus’ body be empty, though historical investigation of the relevant facts does.  This can be, and has been, shown for all the naturalistic hypotheses that have been put forward, but I do not intend to do so here, for the point has already been made.  However, if you remain unconvinced or know of other explanations not explicitly dealt with, I do invite you to attempt to apply the method to various hypotheses to see for yourself how well they fare in explaining the minimal facts.  Whatever your perspective, perhaps the words of Pinchas Lapide will prove insightful.

“If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, p.126).

 

All that has been said above indicates that the resurrection of Jesus cannot be explained away, but then it must be asked, how can the best explanation be understood?  After all, I just mentioned that Pinchas Lapide believed that Jesus rose from the dead, but was not converted to Christianity.  Others acknowledge that something definitely happened, but that we will never know what it was (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.128).  So while there may be widespread agreement on the historical facts surrounding the resurrection, and even the failure of naturalistic hypotheses, this does not guarantee belief in the Christian God.  If this were merely an argument for Jesus’ resurrection on its own, I would think the point to be already made sufficiently.  However, since this is part of a cumulative case for God’s existence, I must go a bit further.

It should first be noted why there is significant resistance to the resurrection of Jesus as a unique event in history.  Lee Strobel quotes RT France as having pointed out in his discussion of the Gospels that “the decision as to how far a scholar is willing to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by his openness to a ‘supernaturalist’ worldview than by strictly historical considerations.” (In Who Made God?, p.89).  On the one hand, it is in some sense amazing that there is such fundamental agreement on the basic facts surrounding the origin of Christianity, and yet, such fundamental disagreement on their interpretation.  On the other hand, this is to be expected, considering the fact that certain philosophical and theological perspectives do not allow for miracles in general, and resurrections in particular.  Though I have made a defense of belief in miracles elsewhere in Miracles-What Do You Expect Me To Believe?, I do not intend to do so here, but suffice it to say that the rejection of miracles often rests on manifestly faulty assumptions.  Miracles are commonly called violations of the laws of nature, thus undermining science.  In the case of resurrection, we could no longer meaningfully talk about what happens with dead people through observation and experimentation.  However, this misunderstands what is really being claimed in the case of a miracle such as the resurrection.  According to Mike Licona,

“We may conclude that an event is a miracle when the event (1) is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law and (2) it occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance; that is, we find the event occurring in a context in which we may expect a god to act.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, p.614).

If we consider the first point, the claim is not that the miracle somehow happened according to some yet unknown law of nature, but quite the contrary, that it goes beyond natural or circumstantial explanation.  In addition, it is not as if the miracle undermines natural law, for natural law is required to recognize something as a miracle in the first place.  The caricature of the early Christians as people who would believe anything miraculous and wonderful because of their ignorance of the scientific viewpoint is not only against the picture painted by the New Testament itself (Luke 24:11; John 20:24-25), but it also does not consider the basic philosophy behind early Christian belief.  As NT Wright aptly states, “The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.712).  It was precisely the way that things normally went that made Jesus’ resurrection stand out as something so significant and substantial.  It was clear that this was nothing of the natural sort, but had to be the result of some intervention from beyond the natural world, or in other words, supernatural.  Claiming that a miracle has happened (God raising Jesus from the dead) through divine intervention does not undermine science, because before and after the event, natural law continues (dead people stay dead).  The law is only temporarily set aside, by the One who created it in the first place on the Christian view I might add, so it is not as if science and miracles are mutually exclusive.

The second point offered by Licona offers more, though, considering people like Lapide who do not have a problem with the idea of miracles in general, and of Jesus’ resurrection in particular, but stop short of committing their lives to Him.  What really sets an event out as a miracle, instead of just a so-far unexplained scientific anomaly, is when the religio-historical context fits with the event being an act of God.  A dead man rising from the dead is an odd happening, indeed, but to earn the designation of “miracle”, there must also be some reason to think that God was involved in bringing about the result.  This is an important issue, because if the resurrection of Jesus was an event brought about by God for a specific purpose, it will not do to simply dismiss whatever that purpose was as insignificant.  As NT Wright puts it,

“The point is that one cannot say ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ with…minimal involvement…If it happened, it matters.  The world is a different place from what it would be if it did not happen.  The person who makes the statement is committed to living in this different world, this newly envisioned universe of discourse, imagination and action.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.714).

Additionally, if it could be shown that the circumstances surrounding the resurrection were in fact religiously charged, as it were, it would add to the likelihood of resurrection being the best explanation of what happened.  Well, as has been shown in the discussion of the historical facts surrounding the resurrection, Jesus was being proclaimed as the risen Lord from very early on in the Christian movement.  Not only that, but in spite of the fact that there was no pre-Christian belief in a dying and rising Messiah (Christ), the early believers proclaimed Jesus as both Lord and Christ, after being crucified and raised (Acts 2:23-24, 31-32, 36).  Is it more likely to believe that the disciples made this up to preach something that nobody expected (nor would want to) or that the significance of Jesus’ life and death were shown them through His resurrection?  I think the evidence above, and even just plain common sense, suggests that the disciples only proclaimed Jesus as the risen Messiah because they had reason to do so; namely, that His resurrection happened, confirming the claims He had made before His death.  I have heard it claimed by some that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah/Christ and that this was invented by the early church (Ex. the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, p.80-81).  However, the presuppositions that lay behind this are not adequately defended, nor are their methods consistently applied.  As much as I would like to quibble about the authenticity of passages that contain Christological significance, I will refrain from doing so here, for a main point that I have been making above needs to be answered.  Where did the Christian faith come from if not from someone who claimed to be the Christ?  Supposedly, Christians wrote the sayings of Christ back into the Gospel narratives to make Him seem more exalted, but in spite of the fact that 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 mentions the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (not simply Jesus) and is within a few years of the event remember, it is still a wonder how this kind of movement could even get started in the first place if there was no messianic proclamation from the Founder Himself.  NT Wright again proves insightful.

“The idea that Christianity began as a non-messianic movement and then, when it went out into the wider world, suddenly developed all kinds of traditions about Jesus as Messiah, ought to be counter-intuitive to anyone thinking historically…

it is important to notice that if Jesus did not, in any way, give the impression that he thought he was Israel’s Messiah, that merely increases the puzzle still further…

The problem is, of course, that the varied pictures of a coming Anointed One in the varied Judaisms of the time do not conform to what Jesus did and said, still less to what happened to him.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.557).

It is extremely difficult to explain how the picture of Jesus is as it is in the Gospels and elsewhere, considering how it would have been if the critics are right.  Jesus did not conquer anything, He did not defeat any armies, He did not bring in everlasting peace, and He did not rid Israel of the wicked and vindicate the righteous.  I have certainly not given the self-understanding of Jesus the space it deserves in this discussion, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to point to the historical context and the impetus it necessitates to get such a faith as Christianity going.  If Jesus had not claimed to be what He ends up being designated very soon after His departure, the origin of the Christian faith becomes even harder to explain than what was examined in that respect above.  However, if it is understood that Jesus did make messianic claims, and then was raised from the dead, as the early church reports and corroborating evidence confirms, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

There is certainly more that could be said about evidence for the resurrection, failure of naturalistic hypotheses, and the uniqueness of Jesus’ life and teaching.  However, I believe I have provided enough to strengthen the faith of believers in Jesus, and for the unbelievers, to “put the ball in their court” so to speak.  If skepticism remains concerning any of the widely attested facts, I welcome any questions, and the same goes for the viability of my conclusions for Jesus’ resurrection and against naturalistic theories.  I would only hope that any hesitation would be out of a desire to know the truth and not out of antagonism toward belief in God in general, and Christianity in particular.  The argument from Jesus’ resurrection for God’s existence, in my mind, is definitely a step in the right direction, for if it can be accepted that there are these facts in history and that they are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus, I think personal belief in the God who raised Him is not far behind.  As Norman Geisler and Frank Turek state, “Even skeptics, by demanding a sign from God, are implicitly admitting that miracles would prove his existence.” (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.201).  In the resurrection of Jesus, I strongly believe we have a divine miracle, supported by historical argumentation.  While evidence for God is not a substitute for faith in God and while believing that God exists is not a substitute for having a relationship with Him, perhaps I have at least removed some of the intellectual obstacles to coming to faith in the God of Christianity.  I leave you with the words of NT Wright, who has hit the nail on the head time and time again with regard to belief in the resurrection.

“Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which scepticisms of various sorts have been hiding.  The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.718).

“In terms of the kind of proof which historians normally accept, the case we have presented, that the tomb-plus-appearances combination is what generated early Christian belief, is as watertight as one is likely to find.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.707).

The Cosmological Argument

The Teleological Argument

The Moral Argument

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