It seems to me that there are at least five established facts in the case for the resurrection. These “minimal facts” are the death of Jesus by Roman crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciple’s resurrection claims, the conversions of James and Paul, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of suffering and death.
This is compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that every skeptic must confront with historical, logical, and consistent reasons of rebuttal if they wish to challenge mainstream biblical and historical scholarship or engage in an attack on the gospel of Jesus.
Furthermore, there are certain biases, presuppositions, and cultural conditioning that must be acknowledged on the outset of an investigation into the case for the resurrection. The skeptic, as well as the Christian, must be aware of this and seek openly and honestly with heart and mind.
III. Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason
The seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment has conditioned much of the West to separate faith and reason. The church has often been guilty of refusing to take serious the discoveries of science. The sloppy practice of using the Scriptures to attack and defend scientific theories has furthered the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another.
Of course, there is such a thing as bad science, something that many evolutionary biologists and skeptics of religion today refuse to acknowledge. But who will argue that it was right for the church to denounce Galileo’s heliocentrism—that the earth revolves around the sun?
Like many European intellectuals who grew tired of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, some modern skeptics abandon faith altogether, reject any spiritual dimensions to life and the cosmos, only to rely solely upon science as the only infallible guide to epistemology (what we can know and how can we know it). This is just as arrogant and foolhardy as the fundamentalist preacher who tries to read the first chapters of Genesis as a literal scientific account of creation. It’s wrong. We should recognize it’s wrong. And start being honest about faith and reason.
In his book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N.T. Wright describes spirituality as a “hidden spring” within our society. The ruling class has tried to pave over the spring of spirituality with concrete, regulate and dispense with it in ways that are best for them, and keep it from pouring out freely into the public square. Wright says, sooner or later, that spring is going to burst open!
I think we have been seeing that spring bursting open in American society. Despite the heightened sensitivity to religious fundamentalism, and the claims by the new atheists that God is a delusion—making most of the world’s population schizophrenic—people are not turning away from faith, they are merely beginning to question some of the old paradigms and practices of a church that is stuck in a bygone age—a church that has failed to give them Jesus.
Many people, young and old, are leaving the church to discover faith. While I don’t think abandoning the church is the answer, it may allow for some to discover the Lord’s idea for the ekklesia (i.e. called out community) of God in close-knit Christian relationships, enabling a spiritual revolution among the organized church of Christ within society.
Others who are seeking different forms of spirituality give evidence to the deep yearnings within us all. In fact, Tom Wright says they are “echoes of a voice” that serve as signposts to a future world where God sets the world to rights. These universal desires can be seen in our longing for justice in an unjust world, the continued need we have for relationships in a world broken with heartache and divorce, the dream of knowing a beauty that never fades, and the hunger for spirituality that fully expresses what it means to be human. Wright says the “echoes” are from the voice of God.
I don’t believe that science (i.e. a study of the physical world) can fully account for the way things really are in the universe. The naturalistic criteria laid down by a community that has set the rules according to human reason and observation limits our understanding of the world to what we can see, touch, quantify, and calculate. Life as we know it is too complex to fathom. There are simply too many mysteries in the known universe to let a few skeptics in the scientific community tell us that there is no God, and that the laws of nature are never suspended.
Naturalism may dictate that dead people stay dead. But if there is a God who created the world, and sent his Son to reveal his divine program, then how can we be so certain that this God wouldn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and affirm divine revelation? I believe it is just the sort of thing God would do to reveal himself and redeem mankind for a new world—a world that he has not left to simply wind down, grow cold, and become stardust.
The thinking of philosopher David Hume has left an indelible mark on Western society. Hume rejected the idea of miracles, largely based on his naturalistic perspective that the laws of nature prohibit them from happening. Hume wrote:
“The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” (Concerning Human Understanding, 10.2.101.)
Did you catch that? Hume is saying that it is a miracle that anyone could ever be dumb enough to believe in the Christian faith!
Would the resurrection of Jesus be a violation of natural laws? Are miracles to be entirely ruled out because Hume concluded that they are contrary to nature and the whole of human experience? I don’t believe so. And I think further scientific investigation can get us there.
There are currently three main views of natural law: the regularity theory, the nomic necessity theory, and the causal dispositions theory. None of these theories actually allow for miracles to be understood as violations of the laws of nature. Instead, miracles are naturally impossible events that require an unknown or “supernatural” force to interrupt the natural world at a certain time and place. William Lane Craig writes:
“When a scientific anomaly occurs, it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised. But suppose the law fails to describe or predict accurately because some supernatural factors are interfering? Clearly the implicit assumption of such laws is that no supernatural factors as well as no natural factors are interfering. Thus, if the law proves inaccurate in a particular case because God is acting, the law is neither violated nor revised. If God brings about some event which a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of a law of nature, since the law is valid only under tacit assumption that no supernatural factors come into play in addition to the natural factors” (Craig, 262).
I have found that it is important to do your study of the historical Jesus by first discarding of the presupposition that naturalism can fully account for the way things are in the world. As Craig has written, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition” (Craig, 279).
Craig Keener has recently reminded us of the reality of miracles in contemporary times with his two-volume set, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). I agree with Keener, there is good reason and ample evidence that ought to prompt us to believe in miracles today.
Miracles are not a problem for me simply because I believe that God exists, but because I believe this loving God is actively involved in creation. The very laws of nature (as we know them) are continually sustained by his power. He has revealed himself in the natural order and in the spiritual order. But more specifically, God’s good will for creation has been made known in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
And he has displayed his saving power by raising this Jesus from the dead.
Conclusion—Believing in the Face of Objections & Seasons of Doubt
I believe that once you exhaust all normal causations for the resurrection story, the evidence points to the “high probability” that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, we have the sort of evidence we would expect to find if Jesus was raised from the dead. It’s actually not all that difficult to believe, depending on your presuppositions. I believe an honest search will lead a person to at least acknowledge the weight of the evidence.
However, a historical, biblical, or scientific investigation is not enough to push someone over the edge of skepticism into belief. In the end, it’s not the intellectual inquiry that produces and completes faith. While faith involves reasoning with the intellect, there is still yet another dimension of faith that must be embraced: mystery. Once a person reaches the boundaries of human reason, they will be faced with the mystery of it all.
What do you do with the mystery?
If you don’t allow for mystery, there can be no such thing as real faith. Don’t confuse mystery with ignorance. To recognize mystery is simply to take notice of the boundaries of human reason—the finite mind of man in contrast to the infinite mind of God—and revel in the majesty of God’s power.
When I was in the sixth grade, Mrs. Fuller was my English teacher. There were many times when I apparently tried to take over the class, insert my all-knowing wisdom, and stand in the place of Mrs. Fuller. She would always patiently respond with a kind reminder that she was the teacher and I was the student. She would point to herself, “teacher,” and then to me, “student.” After a while, all she had to do is say those words to me when I got too big for my britches. Now I use this with my students.
In the face of objections by skeptics, and in my own seasons of doubt, the living Lord continually reminds me that he is the Teacher, and I am merely the student. So, as the student, I will take the evidence that has convinced me of the resurrection of Jesus, and then go sit down amidst all the objections and doubt, in order to be taught by the risen Lord.
D.D. Flowers, 2012.
“The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” by F.F. Bruce; “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament” by Daniel B. Wallace; “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” by Craig Blomberg; “What are the Gospels?: A Comparison of Graeco-Roman Biography” by Richard Burridge; “Who Was Jesus?” by N.T. Wright; “Jesus & the Victory of God” by N.T. Wright; “Historical Jesus: Five Views” by James Beilby; “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders; “Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma” by Gregory Boyd & Paul Rhodes Eddy; “The Aims of Jesus” by Ben Meyer; “Jesus & the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” by Richard Bauckham; “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Gary Habermas & Mike Licona; “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N.T. Wright; “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” by Mike Licona; “The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” by Raymond Brown; “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics” by William Lane Craig; “Jesus & His World: The Archaeological Evidence” by Craig Evans; “Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ” by Darrell Bock; “Lost in Transmission: What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus” by Nicholas Perrin; “Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels” by Craig Evans
Films & Documentaries:
“The Life of Jesus: Who He Is & Why He Matters” by John Dickson (book & DVD); “Jesus: The Complete Story (BBC, 2004); “Resurrection” by N.T. Wright; “The Gospel of John” (Philip Savile, 2005); “Passion of the Christ” (Mel Gibson, 2004); “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel (book & DVD); “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? A Critical Examination of the Facts About the Resurrection of Jesus” by Ignatius Press (2008).
May 1st, 2012 at 10:48 pm
As a non-believer, I always wondered how Christians were able to reconcile the fact that St. Paul, who is credited with writing much of the New Testament, never actually met the historical person of Jesus. Nor are there any credible non-New Testament references to the historical character of Jesus. Growing up in the German Democratic Republic, we were told by our teachers that the person of Jesus may have existed, but we have no credible non-Christian references for this. Josephus, who is often referenced for noting a historical Jesus, also seemed to believe that Hercules was a real person and therefore his account is suspect at best. The Roman historian Tacitus noted the existence of Christians, but made only a cursory reference to Jesus. Furthermore, it is my belief that the majority of the Old Testament is heavily borrowed from the mythology of other cultures and, for the most part, is merely the mythology of an insignificant tribe of bronze-age goat herders that lived in the Middle East. In all likely hood, Abraham, Moses, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and many more characters never existed, as there are no references for them beyond the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions. Please forgive any spelling or grammar mistakes I may have made as English is not my first language. I look forward to hearing your reply and hope we can have a civil conversation on this matter.
May 2nd, 2012 at 12:08 pm
Thanks for commenting, Keineengel. Have you read the first two parts of this series? Also, have you read any of the sources I cite and mention in the suggested reading list? Even the most skeptical scholars do not agree with your assessment.
May 2nd, 2012 at 8:23 pm
Yes I have read over the first two parts of the series. What aspect of my assessment would they not agree with? The skepticism about the existence of Jesus? I personally believe the man existed. My only point was that there are not a wealth of non-Christian sources from the era that mention him. I have heard many sources, including Brian McClaren, deny the historicity of Genesis. There are simply no external refererences to the kings mentioned in the book of Genesis. Furthermore, several characters from the book have conflicting details.Abimelech could not have been a Philistine (they did not come until centuries later), Ur would not become known as “Ur of the Chaldeans” until the early 1st millennium, and Laban could not have been an Aramean, as the Arameans did not become an identifiable political entity until the 12th century BCE. Most likely, the book was written during the Jewish exile in Babylon in around the 5th Century BCE or so, in an attempt to keep the flame alive for the Jewish people during their captivity at the hands of the Babylonians. Joseph Blenkinsopp, professor Emeritus of Biblical studies at Notre Dame University, supports this view.