“What? Are you serious? Who’d believe this in our modern world? You’d have to think the Gospels are inspired by God or something like that, and they’re a bunch of myths!”
To the contrary, I will assume nothing special about the New Testament writings whatsoever. I will use only the historical information that is accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who have studied this material today-no matter how skeptical or liberal they are. That means, for example, that I will only cite New Testament passages, ones that pass the customary skeptical standards and are recognized as such. Using only these “minimal facts,” I will still maintain that Jesus’ resurrection is the most likely explanation for what we know.
As a preface to this discussion, scholars very rarely question whether Jesus died due to the practice of crucifixion. In dozens of medical studies, the majority view is that asphyxiation plays the major role here. You don’t have to be a physician. Just know how to nail or tie someone to a structure, with their weight pulling down on their outstretched arms. Further, in ancient records, they broke ankles (to induce asphyxiation), crushed skulls, or stabbed chests simply in order to insure death. A person who was just crucified was hardly capable of convincing his witnesses that he was the risen Savior! In their wounded and sickly condition, they might be alive, but no one would declare them raised in a wonderful new body!
But what can be said about Jesus Christ appearing to his followers after his death?
Consider just the following details that the vast majority of skeptical scholars allow:
(1) Most scholars agree that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty shortly afterwards. With almost two dozen reasons favoring this report alone, what best explains this? Other hypotheses do not account for all the data.
(2) Many eyewitnesses assert that they saw the risen Jesus, both individually and in groups. Even apart from the Gospels, we can establish this totally from just two passages in Paul’s “undisputed writings”:
--Paul told the Corinthians that he had received the Gospel resurrection report from others (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
--The consensus critical view is that Paul probably obtained this material in Jerusalem, when he visited the eyewitness apostles Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:18-24).
--Paul returned to Jerusalem 14 years later and specifically checked out the nature of the Gospel message, again with eyewitnesses Peter, James, and now John (Galatians 2:1-10).
--All the apostles agreed that Jesus appeared to them after his death (1 Corinthians 15:11).
(3) Further, critical scholars also agree that Paul received this material from the other apostles at an exceptionally early date-only about five years after the crucifixion. But since the others knew the reports before Paul did, we are right back to the events themselves. Even the best-known critical scholar today, non-Christian specialist Bart Ehrman, dates several Christian traditions as early as just a year or two after the crucifixion!
(4) But why should we believe that these eyewitnesses were being honest? We have first century sources that the three apostles mentioned above were all martyred: Paul, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus. Of course, people die for all sorts of ideas, but only for what they are convinced is true. But unlike others, the apostles were in a position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus Christ alive after his death. By being willing to die, scholars agree that they were convinced that Jesus had indeed appeared to them. At the very least, this addresses their honesty and conviction.
5) Of these eyewitnesses, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christians, and James was an unbeliever. Skeptical scholars accept this in both cases. But why did they become believers? Again, they were certainly in a position to know whether the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
But aren’t the Gospels full of myths? I don’t think that can be substantiated at all, but that’s another subject. Notice that we didn’t use the Gospels here. We only used texts that are accepted by virtually all scholars who have studied these events in detail. As Ehrman points out, the pagan dying and rising gods motif has many serious problems and cannot be used to argue some sort of copycat theory by the early Christian apostles.
Altogether, these five reasons are each based on a well-evidenced foundation, built on texts that are accepted as historical by virtually all scholars, whatever their religious persuasion. Readers who choose to reject them must consider whether they are doing so for other than factual reasons.
Dr. Gary Habermas is the distinguished research professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Liberty University and Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.