Even Skeptic Scholars Believe in Christianity
(if they think about it)
By: Justin Wishart
It is likely that historical scholars around the world have scrutinized first century Palestine in more detail than any other time and place in history. Mainly the claims found in the Bible end up being the foundational motivation as historians study this era. Of particular interest is the bizarre claim that Jesus of Nazarene was executed by the Romans and that three days later, He was found alive. This bizarre claim polarizes historical scholars. Some think the claim is true, while others think the claim is absurd. The interesting thing about this religious claim is that it is expressed as an event in history. By doing this, the Bible opens itself to the scrutiny of historians. To put it another way, this central claim of Christianity is testable.
I would like to take a little time to demonstrate how central Jesus’ resurrection is to the Christian faith. Paul, who was the earliest Christian writer, expressed the importance of the resurrection this way;
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 (ESV)
Paul is making it clear that if Jesus was not raised from the dead that Christianity is false. The resurrection is the most central claim found within Christianity. Everything from salvation to the afterlife is connected to the resurrection.
This bizarre belief is obviously interesting to the historian. If this claim is true there should be historical evidence to back it up. If there is no historical evidence to support the Resurrection, then serious questions about the legitimacy of such a claim needs to be answered.
In order to demonstrate the truth of the Resurrection, I will take an approach that was made popular by Dr. Gary Habbermas and Dr. Michael Licona in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (2004). I first learned of this approach by listening to a lecture given by Dr. Craig Hazen called “Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ”. They took what the vast majority of historical scholars found to be true concerning the resurrection and catalogued them into 12 points. These points represent what most scholars, including skeptical scholars, believe to be true. What they discovered was by using only these points of data, Habbermas and Licona were able to conclude that the truth of the resurrection provided the best historical explanation. This has been dubbed the “minimalist approach”. The points are as follows;
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus was buried.
3. Jesus’ disciples despaired after His death.
4. The tomb was discovered empty a few days later.
5. The disciples believed that they saw the literal Jesus after His crucifixion.
6. The lives of the disciples were transformed.
7. The resurrection message was a primary focus of the early church teachings.
8. This teaching started in and around Jerusalem, where the alleged events took place.
9. The church was founded and grew with this message.
10. These Jews, who worshiped on Saturday, changed their day of worship to Sunday.
11. James, Jesus’ half brother, converted to Christianity.
12. Saul, who later became Paul, converted to Christianity.
With these agreed points alone, one is able to see and arrive to the conclusion that the resurrection, as found in the Bible, is the only reasonable explanation. Let us compare these 12 points of data against some modern alternative theories.
“Gary Habermas has compiled a biography of more than 3 400 academic books and journal articles written on the subject since 1975.” Michael R. Licona
There was no Jesus.
All these points assumes that Jesus was a real person, living during a point in history, and not a fictional person. There is no scholar who claims otherwise that is taken seriously.
“[Robert] Price thinks the evidence is so weak for the historical Jesus that we cannot know anything certain or meaningful about him. He is even willing to entertain the possibility that there never was a historical Jesus. Is the evidence of Jesus really that thin? Virtually no scholar trained in history will agree with Price’s negative conclusions.” Crain Evans
Some people seem to think that a group of people made up this whole story and there is not one ounce of historical truth to any of it. I think it is obvious that to hold to this position would go against every agreed upon point. This position would be an extremely hard uphill battle for the skeptic. I could focus on any point of data to refute this notion, but I would like to focus on point number 6. We know that people dedicate and sacrifice their lives for all sorts of reasons. Kamikaze pilots during WW2 would fly their planes into ships, willing to die for Japan. So, is it so odd that people will die for a made up story? Well, a very important distinction must be made here. Dying for a lie that you think is true is one thing, but dying for something you know is a lie, one that you made up, is absurd. It then becomes silly to think that the disciples would die for something they knew to be a lie. You may get one or two people to die for a known lie, but not all the 12 Disciples. They were rounded up, tortured, and executed. What was the benefit of them doing so? Just look at every other point and ask yourself if a fictitious Jesus lines up with the evidence. Surely, one must ignore all the facts to even consider the possibility of Jesus being a made up fictional character.
There was a man named Jesus, who taught many good things, but the early Christians created a dying and rising saviour.
This view has become very popular these days, but there are many difficulties to overcome if one is to hold to this view. Point #4 comes to mind. How does one explain the empty tomb? This question immediately leads one to point #8. If there was not an empty tomb, how could the proclamation of an empty tomb in Jerusalem survive? It would be extremely hard to profess that the tomb of Jesus was empty, if the tomb was not empty. Anyone could look for the truth of the claim themselves and easily discover if indeed the tomb was empty or not. This is an easily falsifiable claim. If Christianity’s central claim was proven false by a body, Christianity would have died before it got going. Thus, point #9 would be very difficult to become a true fact if there was not an actual empty tomb. Paul and James’ conversion is very difficult to explain if the Resurrection was a made up concoction. The idea that there was a man named Jesus but Christians invented His death and Resurrection has almost as much of an uphill battle as the first theory. Again, this theory does not fit in well with the agreed upon data.
Could there have been someone else that died instead of Jesus? Possibly Judas?
This idea has been popular with Muslim critics for a long time. The first major stumbling block this theory has is point #11. How could James, Jesus’ half-brother, not know that it was Jesus on the cross? Mary, their mother, was present during Jesus’ crucifixion and James would have found it easy to confirm or deny if Jesus (or Judas) died on the cross. You have to directly ignore point #3. If this was some sort of plot by Jesus and the disciples, why would the disciples have despaired? Since this view does not agree with the known facts, I ask the skeptic holding this view; where is the evidence that this idea has even the possibility of being true? It seems like this theory was made up to suit someone’s pre-existing position on the Resurrection, not based on facts. No, this possible explanation becomes very unlikely when compared with the data.
Didn’t Jesus just pass out on the cross and later wake back up, walk to find the disciples, and the disciples mistakenly thought that Jesus rose from the dead?
This has been dubbed the “swoon theory” and is also popular amongst Muslim critics. Immediately, this flies in the face of point #1. However, for argument’s sake let us grant them this point. Here we have a man severely flogged, nailed to a cross, blood pouring from His body, and stabbed with a Roman spear. The Romans (who knew about death) mistakenly think He was dead and take Him off the cross. The women prepare Him for burial, who also mistake Him as dead. Jesus revives from His coma, somehow works His way out of the wraps and drags His battered body to His disciples. What do you think the response would be from the Disciples when they opened that door? I would guess, “Someone get a doctor, WHERE IS DOCTOR LUKE”! I don’t think you would find them preaching the Christ conquered death and had risen from the dead. Point #6 is not explained at all by this theory, and you would also have problems with points #7, #9, #10, #11, and #12. This theory bites the dust when the historical facts are considered.
What if people just had a mass hallucination and thought they saw Jesus after his death?
This idea has been making the rounds lately. The theory is designed to try and answer point #5. However, this theory runs into problems of its own. Points #4 and #8 jump to mind first. What about the physical evidence? Hallucinations do not produce empty tombs, particularly when it would be so easy to verify. Additionally, the little I have read on psychology seem to indicate that one only sees deceased people if the death caused great anguish, like when a husband loses his dear wife. This does not happen with different people over a period of time. Even if we were to grant the skeptic this point, the theory does not account for point #12. Paul was an enemy to Christianity, yet he also professed to have seen Jesus as well. How does Paul see this same hallucination as well? Never mind that Paul mentions over 500 people saw Jesus after His death and challenges the reader to question them. No, this theory is not very likely.
There is only one “theory” that matches all the points of agreed data. That is the message that is central to the Christian message. That Jesus died and three days later rose up from the grave and changed the course of the world. Within Christianity, the historical elements are fundamental to our understanding of our faith. This makes Christianity a testable religion as one can look back and see if history shows the accuracy of the events mentioned in the Bible. Hostile skeptics have been trying for a long time to disprove Christianity. Yet, the evidence has been on the Christian’s side and this is why Christianity is still here today. The Christian faith has stood up to all challenges and has never been defeated, and is unlikely to ever be. As the scrutiny towards the Christian faith intensifies, the more the evidence vindicates the Bible and the life of Jesus. Indeed, even the skeptics agree with Christianity... if they think about it.