**(Numbers in parentheses offer footnotes at the bottom)**
The following might surprise or confuse you, but stay with me: I’m about to present you four claims that are accepted as true facts of history by the majority of scholars in the appropriate fields of study — including secular scholars who have no stake in the game, who identify as atheists or at least skeptics; Jewish scholars; and others with beliefs outside the classical Christian framework — facts that “are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”(1)
- First, the experts agree that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross (2) and was buried in a tomb.
- Second, they agree that the tomb was empty three days later.
- Third, they agree that various individuals (and sometimes whole groups of people all at once) experienced what they took to be the resurrected Jesus.
- Fourth, a skeptical non-believer — James, the brother of Jesus — and a vicious persecutor of Christians — Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul the Apostle — did an immediate about-face based on what they claimed was an encounter with the risen Christ, and both suffered martyrdom rather than recant.
“But wait,” you might say. “Atheists and Jews, by their very nature, don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus.” And you’d be right. But then, Jesus rising from the dead is not one of the facts, is it?
Instead, it is naturally inferred by taking in these facts together. While Jesus rising from the dead is not one of the facts, it is in the facts — the forest through the trees. It is the most reasonable conclusion, and in fact the only conclusion ever offered that that accounts for all of the facts together.(3)
Jesus’ resurrection, it seems then, turns out to be defensible. I argue that our honest reaction should be to dig into this event, this man, and figure out what to do with it all. Because if this is true, we ought to very carefully consider every single thing the man believed, taught and did.
But how can we know it’s true? Here, let me rewind a bit…
I never know quite how to answer the question of when I became a Christian, because I grew up going to church and just assumed it all to be true up. When I went off to college, it dawned on me that I’d never challenged those beliefs, so I set the beliefs aside for later examination.
It’s that later period of examination that I now point to as the season of life when I became convinced of the biblical narrative, and began living with conviction about these things. It’s when my hopeful belief, however weak it had been up to that point, was substantiated (or perhaps even replaced) by something much stronger, more permanent, and more effective. Instead of adopting the “faith” of my upbringing, I worked and toiled in search of truth, and concluded that the Biblical narrative — most importantly the recorded history of the man Jesus of Nazareth, lawful son of Joseph the laborer, a descendant of Israel’s King David — was reliable and trustworthy from the standpoint of historical accuracy, textual criticism, scientific content, supporting archaeological discoveries, laws of logic, and much more. In short, that’s when the facts convinced me that Christianity is an intellectually fulfilling worldview.
That’s all well and good for me (the author). But how can you (the reader) be convinced?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked. Let’s proceed.
Last week I challenged my readers that if we’re not celebrating an actual historical event when we attend a church service on Easter Sunday, it’s kind of a silly bit of make-believe for adults:
Maybe don’t go to church this Easter?
Or, a call to examine whether we’re living consistent with our principles in adulthood
As Paul the Apostle wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty… we should be pitied more than anyone.” (Layman’s terms: if Jesus’ corpse is busy rotting somewhere, then Christianity crumbles, and its adherents should be considered the world’s biggest fools.) Paul’s quote is from his first letter to the Corinthian church, in a chapter that also happens to include the earliest known church creed, which the vast majority of New Testament scholars (including secular ones) date to within a couple years of Jesus’ ministry — even perhaps within one year by some reckonings.(4)
Take note, because we’re going to see this point again: Doing history means trying to piece together particular facts from ancient times in an effort to paint the picture of what happened; so it is crucial that lots of experts from an array of belief systems agree on those facts, so that there are accepted building blocks with which to build an accurate representation of history.
Looking at this creed will summarize the precise history that members of the early church (including eyewitnesses to the events themselves) would tell you is built by our four facts above:
…that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [St. Peter], then to the twelve [apostles]. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all… he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been in vain.
Note 1: given that this creed’s super early timestamp is historically accepted by even skeptics, you cannot conclude that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is merely a legend developed over time. So put that out of ya brain. Note 2: It is very clear that Jesus’ contemporaries believed that he had a bodily resurrection from the grave. And notice the last couple sentences, as Paul’s journey from the church’s biggest enemy to its biggest cheerleader (including as author of the bulk of the New Testament) is one of our facts.
I’ll pause here to offer a short 28 minute video of philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig (who used to sport a rad beard, but sadly left it behind in the ‘90s) summarizing the facts we’ve reviewed so far, for the more auditory learners out there:
Detectives working a criminal case, and jury members deciding that case, use what’s called abductive reasoning. It’s where you look at a set of evidence and try to determine to the most likely conclusion. For example, you walk into your bathroom and finds torn up toilet paper all over the floor. Your dog has been locked in the room all day. You conclude that the dog tore up the TP because it is the most likely scenario.
The minimal facts approach to the resurrection of Jesus works by abductive reasoning. And to reiterate once more, we don’t need to spend time deciding whether each individual claim is true, because that heavy lifting has already been done for us; they are each considered factual by 65–95% (depending on which fact is in question) of New Testament scholars, including critics of Christianity.(5) But if you’re still at all unconvinced on the facts, you can read more about the methodology in determining the facts here.
Sometimes this list of facts is laid out as twelve individual points, all still well-attested, and including some of the finer points. As 12 points it looks like this:
1. Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion. (Agreed on by 98% of scholars.)
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty. (This is most contested, with 65% of scholars agreeing.)
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
6. The disciples were transformed from fearful doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message of the early church.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew. (In my view, this stands on its own as an incredibly strong defense for the resurrection, and I plan to write a future story on this subject alone.)
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship, a dramatic shift from their culture’s long history of Saturday Sabbath keeping.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was Jesus’ brother, a family skeptic).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
As my favorite Christian author/thinker Greg Koukl has put it,
Note, none of these facts — a dead man, an empty tomb, claimed sightings, changed minds — is supernatural in itself. Individually, they happen all the time. That’s why historians have no trouble agreeing on those particulars, especially since the evidence supports them. What historians don’t agree on is what best explains these four facts pertaining to Jesus. But there aren’t many options.
Cumulatively, these facts can clearly support the classically held narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you want to offer an alternative, you’re welcome to do so. Many have tried. But no other scenario has ever been presented that accounts for each of these facts. That would be of necessity if you wanted to somehow dismiss the narrative that launched the most history-altering movement of all time.
Now that you’re aware of these facts, can you still remain neutral on the death and resurrection of Jesus?
If you disregard it or don’t find it interesting, you’re acting by default as if it’s false; that’s irresponsible. Or perhaps you somehow think it’s irrelevant, but if it’s true (and that’s what I’ve presented here), I can’t imagine anything more relevant than this event. The resurrection of a dead man — especially one whose life and teachings were so impactful — would be more important than any coronation, any war or peace treaty, any great work of art, any bumbling president who divides a country, any crazy NCAA upset.
At the very least, curiosity ought to drive a reasonable person to determine a sound explanation for these facts, no? Given what’s at stake, if you bet against the resurrection and everything that goes with it, you’d better be sure you’re right, or else you’re missing out on “life Himself.” Lots of good teachers have walked the earth and shared good words; but if one of them predicted and fulfilled his own death and resurrection, it’s worth your time to get to know him.
(1) A quote by Gary Habermas — whose research into the minimal facts some 40–50 years ago, which involved over 2,000 sources in over more than three languages, caused a shift in scholarship in this area — in his book with Mike Licona, The Case for the Resurrection.
(2) The Roman cross of crucifixion was a torture/execution device so infamous for the agony it caused its victims that the word “excruciating,” Latin meaning of the cross, is still used today. More here.
(3) This essay does a wonderful job reviewing the alternative explanations most often given, and explains how they never account for all of the agreed-on facts of history and often contradict themselves.
(4) This offers an incredibly well-cited defense for the early dating of 1 Corinthians 15’s church creed: https://beliefmap.org/bible/1-corinthians/15-creed/date
(5) The essay noted in footnote 3 is well-cited with 66 citations of dozens of sources, many of which are scholarly books that themselves have substantial bibliographies. I’m intentionally not regurgitating the sources here, for the sake of brevity and ease of access; but I also do not want the richness of the available resources to be understated or missed.