Making a Case for the Resurrection at 36,000 Feet
By Michael Licona
This past February I boarded a plane for a long flight. I had a new book that I had saved for the flight and was very much looking forward to reading it. Shortly after I took my seat, an elderly man, probably in his eighties, took his seat next to me. I smiled thinking, “He’s going to fall asleep and I’m going to get in a lot of reading!”
I was mistaken. Just after I began to read, my fellow passenger leaned over and looked very deliberately at the pages I was reading. I smiled and showed him the cover. It was a book on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. He chuckled and said, “Well, I guess we don’t have to think seriously about that, since it has now been proven that Jesus never even existed!” He nodded and sat straight up, as though our conversation had ended and now it was time to find something else to do. Hit and run? Not a chance, my new friend.
“Why do you think Jesus never existed?” I asked. This led to a short conversation on Jesus’ existence that would take us outside the scope of this article.1 It did not take long for him to concede that Jesus indeed had existed, but he maintained that “resurrections are made of fairy tales. There is no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and it certainly could never be proved.” Perhaps you have had a similar discussion with someone and wished you had known how to reply. I will share the approach I took.
What Is Proof? When stating conclusions, historians may say “such and such occurred”; however, all historians concede that absolute or 100 percent certainty in historical matters is impossible. They, instead, seek reasonable certainty. We cannot prove with absolute certainty that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BC, for example, but the evidence is good enough for historians to conclude that he did. Historians consider a number of theories of what occurred and select the best theory. They refer to this as an argument to the best explanation. At the end of this article, I’ll explain how to do this with two resurrection theories.
Minimal Facts. A very strong case can be made for the trustworthiness of the New Testament, but those who argue for Jesus’ resurrection from trustworthiness must be prepared to answer questions raised by skeptics regarding hundreds of alleged errors and contradictions in the New Testament. Since most Christians are unable to do this, I would like to propose a way that I learned from my mentor, professor Gary Habermas. He calls it the minimal facts approach, where we consider only those historical facts related to the resurrection of Jesus that are so strong that the vast majority of scholars, including skeptical ones, agree that they are facts. This is not to suggest that accounts in the New Testament that do not meet this strict criteria are false; only that we cannot prove them as being true. It also is not to say that we should believe something simply because the majority of scholars believe it. It is saying, rather, that we will use only those facts that are so strong that the majority of scholars concede them.
The strength of this approach is that a skeptic cannot deny the resurrection of Jesus simply because he or she does not believe the Bible. I do not believe that the Qur’an is God’s Word; however, there is historical knowledge to be gained from reading the Qur’an. For example, we can learn what seventh-century Muslims taught and perhaps be able to trace a few teachings back to Muhammad himself. The New Testament, likewise, at minimum, tells us much about the beliefs of the first-century church, and historians are able to determine with reasonable certainty a number of teachings and actions of the apostles and Jesus Himself.
Here are the three most important minimal facts related to Jesus’ resurrection…
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