Monday, April 17, 2017

Making a case for the Resurrection

Over the years I've read a number of prominent Christian apologists make their case for the Resurrection. Notable examples include John Warwick Montgomery, C.E.B. Cranfield, William Lane Craig, Timothy and Lydia McGrew, Richard Swinburne, Gary Habermas, N. T. Wright, and Mike Licona. Craig in particular has been influential in making a stereotypical case for the Resurrection, based on his minimal facts strategy, that's widely copied. 

So I was thinking recently about how I'd make a case for the Resurrection if I was asked to give a presentation at church or college. 


I. Prima facie historical evidence

1. One thing that's often lost sight of in debates over the Bible is that testimony is prima facie evidential in its own right unless we have reason to doubt it. You don't need corroborative evidence before testimony can have evidential value.

For instance, my grandmother used to tell me stories about her life. That's my primary source of information about her before I was born. I have no reason to think she was lying or misremembering basic facts about her life. 

Most of what I know about my parents before I was born comes from what they told me about their life. In some instances I might be able to corroborate their testimony, but that's hardly necessary for their testimony to be trustworthy. 

Unless we have evidence that the witness is a chronic liar, or unless we have evidence that the witness was motivated to lie in this particular case, it's irrational to discount testimonial evidence. 

2. The Gospels

The NT consists of 27 1C documents about a 1C historical figure. 

i) In the case of the Gospels, there's the antiquity if not the originality of the titles. The uniformity of the titles in the textual tradition is hard to account for unless they are either original or extremely primitive editorial ascriptions. And as soon as more than one Gospel was in circulation, it would be necessary for each Gospel to be entitled, to distinguish it from another or others. Cf. Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity Press International, 2000), chap. 3, §3. 

ii) According to Acts 12:12, Mark's hometown was Jerusalem. So his home was the site of an original house-church in Jerusalem. Given the time and place, he was likely an eyewitness to some of Christ's public ministry, and he had access to the disciples for further information. 

This is an incidental detail in Luke's narrative, so it can't be chalked up to a forger who's trying to give Mark's Gospel an illustrious pedigree. 

iii) Matthew has a preoccupation with Judaism that would be moot after the fall of Jerusalem and dissolution of the Jewish establishment. And assuming the apostolic authorship of Matthew, which is defensible, he was an eyewitness to much of what he records.

iv) Luke and Acts share the same author. Because Acts intersects with more Roman history than Luke, there's more corroborative evidence. Given that Luke is demonstrably accurate in Acts, we'd expect him to be accurate in his Gospel. Evidence for the historical accuracy of Acts includes: Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Eisenbrauns, 1990); Craig Keener, Acts: A Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. (Baker Academic, 2012-2015).

v) On a conventional solution to the Synoptic Problem, Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source. That gives us an opportunity to double check on how they handle sources. We can compare Matthew to Mark and Luke to Mark. Both of them are extremely conservative in their use of Mark. That gives us reason to believe they are equally faithful in how they appropriate or edit their other sources.

vi) John's Gospel contains many extraneous details that are consistent with a firsthand observer who's remembering the past–indeed, seeing the past in his recollection, viz. the time of day ("about the tenth hour" [1:39]; "about the sixth hour" [4:6]; "six stone water pots, each holding twenty or thirty gallons" [2:6]). For further details, cf. J. B. Lightfoot, "Internal evidence for the authenticity and genuineness of St. John's Gospel," Biblical Essays (Baker, 1979), chap. 3.

Archeology has confirmed the accuracy of John's detailed description in 5:2. Cf. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP, 2001), 109; Craig Keener, The Gospel of John (Hendrickson, 2003), 1:636-38. That's impressive considering the fact that the Romans razed Jerusalem in 70 AD. 

Some critics attempt to minimize archeological confirmation of the NT by saying authors of historical fiction deliberately sprinkle their stories with factual tidbits to give them an air of verisimilitude. Yet critics also Acts and the Gospels were written by authors far removed in time and place from the events they purport to record. But in that case they wouldn't have access to the necessary background information. Or if they did, that's a reason to think they're accounts are generally accurate, since they are based on access to firsthand information. The critics can't have it both ways. 

vii) An interesting feature of John's Gospel is the number of editorial asides. Cf. Andreas J. Köstenberger, Encountering John (Baker Academic; 2nd ed, 2013), Excursus 3. John will quote a statement by Jesus or narrate an event in the life of Christ, then add an explanatory comment to forestall the reader's misunderstanding. That, however, is a very clumsy device is his Gospel is pious fiction. In that event, why first make a confusing statement that you must then clarify? If you're making stuff up whole cloth, why not build your interpretation directly into the narration rather than interrupt the story with these distracting interjections?

By contrast, this is consistent with oral history. With someone who's writing or dictating from memory. He recounts what someone said. He recounts what he saw. Then he add his own parenthetical comment to clarify the scene for the benefit of a listener who wasn't there. To provide necessary context. Anyone who spends much time listening to the elderly talk about their lives is familiar with this practice. Indeed, it can be a big maddening. We want them to cut to the chase. 

viii) The Gospels are strikingly reserved in their accounts of the Resurrection. None of them directly describes the Resurrection itself. None of them depicts Jesus returning to life in the tomb and exiting the tomb. Rather, all of them narrate the aftermath of the Resurrection. People discovering the empty tomb and Jesus reappearing to people. And that's consistent with eyewitness reportage, since there were no eyewitnesses to the Resurrection itself. No one besides Jesus was in the tomb. If, however, the Gospels are pious fiction, we'd expect them to describe this central event in spectacular detail. 

Their restraint is an indication of historicity. They only report what they know. They don't embroider their accounts with sensational details. 

Admittedly, some critics think any supernatural incidents are a telltale sign of legendary embellishment, but that's a reflection of the critic's secular prejudice. 

3. James and Jude

According to the Gospels, the public ministry of Jesus left him estranged from his family. That's not surprising. He became a controversial figure. An embarrassment to his family. Jesus alienated the Jewish establishment. Followers were expelled from synagogues (Jn 9:22). Christian leaders were arrested (Acts). 

Moreover, that doesn't depend on prior belief in the historicity of the Gospels and Acts. For that's a predictable reaction by the religious establishment. This is how people in power typically respond to dissidents, rivals, revolutionaries, "schismatics," and "heretics". That can be documented throughout religious and political historian. It's not confined to any particular religion.  

Eventually, he was convicted of blasphemy by the high court of Israel and executed as an enemy of the state. His stepbrothers would be strongly motivated to disown him for their own protection. Excommunication would invite an economic boycott of the dominical family. They'd have a lot to lose by guilty association with Jesus. 

It took a personal encounter with the Risen Lord for his disaffected brothers (James, Jude) to be reconciled with Jesus. 

James and Jude don't ride on the coattails of their stepbrother. They mention the family connection in passing, but they don't exploit that connection for personal gain. They don't use it as leverage to advance controversial claims. So there's no reason to think there letters are pseudonymous. And no reason to think Luke lies about the position of James in the early church. 

4. According to the Gospels, the disciples were demoralized by his humiliating death. That doesn't depend on prior belief in the historicity of the Gospels. Rather, that reaction just stands to reason, given mundane human psychology. 

Yet according to Acts, as well as 1-2 Peter, Peter and John become outspoken representatives of the new faith. If they thought Jesus died in ignominy, if they thought association with Jesus, as a reputed "blasphemer," "sorcerer," and enemy of the state, tainted them, wouldn't they do whatever they could to distance themselves from Jesus? His departure from the scene left them very vulnerable. 

Even if you think the case for the traditional authorship of 2 Peter is weak, a solid case can be made for the traditional authorship of 1 Peter. I think both are defensible. Cf. Karen Jobes, 1 Peter (Baker, 2005); E. E. Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Brill, 1999), 120-33.   

5. Paul

I agree with scholars like Paul Barnett and Stanley Porter that Paul probably had some firsthand knowledge of Jesus before the Resurrection. Cf. Stanley Porter, When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Some critics think Paul only had a subjective vision of Jesus. But "visions" can be objective. The fact, moreover, that it was luminous doesn't make it subjective. Jesus was luminous at the Transfiguration.

If Paul saw and heard Jesus during his visits to Jerusalem, that would explain why Paul was such an early opponent of Christianity, headquartered in Jerusalem. 

Paul was a rising star in Judaism. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose by changing teams.  

1 Cor 15:3-8. The obvious source of Paul's tradition is his first visit to leaders of the Jerusalem church (Gal 1:18-19). Paul has no motivation to fabricate this tradition. To the contrary, given how he jealously defends the independence of his divine commission and revelation, he had a disincentive to appeal to this tradition. So he reports it despite his proprietary  inclinations to the contrary. 

6. Hebrews

The author of Hebrews incidentally identifies himself as a member of the Pauline circle (Heb 13:23), who is, moreover, in contact with eyewitnesses (Heb 2:3). Why would he lie about that? If he's a charlatan, why not claim to be an apostle or eyewitness in his own right? 

7. Women at the tomb

In that misogynistic culture, women were regarded as second-rate eyewitnesses. If the Gospels are pious fiction, why would the narrators invent inferior witnesses rather than more culturally credible witnesses? 

Ironically, some critics object to the NT because it fails to say that Jesus appeared to more impressive witnesses like Pilate, Caiphas, Annas, or Caesar. But if the Gospels are pious fiction, why don't they say that? If the Gospels are pious fiction, they weren't not constrained by the facts.  

They don't say that because they report what they actually know. Because they report what actually happened.  

II. Miracles

1. In response to (I), an unbeliever will say that even if testimony is prima facie evidence in ordinary cases, when the account includes reported miracles, that, in itself, makes it factually dubious. Miracles only happen in the Bible, not in real life. Or more generally, miracles only happen in mythology and pious fiction, but not in the world you and I experience. 

But a basic problem with that denial is monumental evidence for extrabiblical miracles. And not just miracles in general, but Christian miracles in particular. 

I'd add that while Christian miracles aren't direct evidence for the Resurrection, they are direct evidence for Christianity, which in turn makes them indirect evidence for the Resurrection inasmuch as the truth of Christianity entails the truth of the Resurrection. Useful collections of case-studies include Rex Gardner, Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates (DLT, 1987); Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Baker, 2011); Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lexington Books, 2013); Robert Larmer, Dialogues on Miracle (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Larmer's books are primarily a philosophical defense of miracles, but his appendices include firsthand accounts of some miracles.

In addition, there are some online resources, viz.,



On a related note is answered Christian prayer. This sometimes overlaps with Christian miracles. I'm referring to prayers addressed to Jesus or prayers in Jesus' name or prayers addressed to the Father of Jesus. In case of answered Christian prayers, that would not be direct evidence for the Resurrection. It would, however, be direct evidence for Christianity, which in turn furnishes indirect evidence for the Resurrection–inasmuch as the truth of Christianity implicates the Resurrection. 

2. Unbelievers dismiss reported miracles on the grounds that this in itself makes the witness suspect. Moreover, they say miracles are at odds with what we know about the operation of the world

Yet that's circular. How do you know what the world is like? You weren't born knowing what's possible. You discover that through your own observation and the observation of others. And that includes reported miracles. If, no matter how often a particular kind of event is reported, you discount the reports, regardless of who reported it, then your worldview isn't based on evidence.  

3. Dreams and visions of Jesus

There are well-documented cases of Jesus appearing to people throughout the course of church history. Cf. P. Wiebe, Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today (Oxford 1997). 

i) Some Christian apologists may view this as a threat to the case for the Resurrection, if we consider it to be an alternative explanation for the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ in the NT, but I think that's a category mistake.

To begin with, "vision" is ambiguous. A "vision" isn't necessarily a psychological event. In principle, it can be an objective, physical appearance of the risen Lord. I'm not saying that's how all reported appearances should be classified. But it's a false dichotomy to define a vision in contrast to a physical appearance.

In addition, both can be true at different times. For instance, the fact that Jesus could appear to someone in a veridical dream doesn't preclude his Resurrection. It's just a different mode of communication. There's more than one way a person can encounter Jesus. There's no antecedent reason that visions of Jesus can't be caused by the risen Jesus. They see, hear, and feel him via ordinary sensory perception. An external stimulus producing the experience. 

Dreams are psychological, but by the same token, people won't confuse dreams with physical encounters.

ii) If some descriptions of appearances of Jesus are tangible, then that favors a corporeal appearance in those cases. 

iii) I'm not citing the phenomenon as direct evidence for the Resurrection, but evidence for the fact that Jesus didn't pass into oblivion when he died. It's a necessary, if insufficient, condition of the Resurrection, that Jesus still exist. Indeed, that he continues to appear to some people in time of need.

iv) The reports might be dismissed on the grounds that some visions can be the product of pious expectations. Devout hallucinations. And I'm sure some reported apparitions are hallucinatory. 

However, even in the case of pious expectation, that's an inadequate reason to automatically discount the reality of the report. To take a comparison, Christians pray with the expectation that God sometimes answers prayer. But their expectation doesn't produce answered prayer, and their expectation can't be used to dismiss evidence for answered prayer. Indeed, if God exists, the expectation is well-founded. Experience confirms that expectation.

Moreover, the hallucinatory explanation fails in the case of veridical dreams and vision.

v) In addition, not all dreams and visions are expected. There are reported visions of Jesus appearing to people who didn't expect it. Indeed, to hostile individuals who are naturally predisposed to reject Christianity, viz. Hugh Montefiore, The Paranormal: A Bishop Investigates (Upfront Publishing, 2002), 234-35; Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (Zondervan, 2016); Tom Doyle, Dreams and Visions. Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World (Thomas Nelson 2012); David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam (WIGTake Resources, 2014).  

My post isn't meant to be exhaustive. I'm just highlighting what I consider to be the best lines of evidence. There are other works that fill in many of the details. I don't agree with everything they say, but they often supplement what I say.

4. Messianic prophecy

The OT has little explicit to say about the resurrection of the messiah. The best bet is Ps 16:10. And I think that interpretation is defensible. Indeed, I've defended it.

What's more interesting is the conjunction of two other OT themes. On the one hand, you have three prophetic texts about the messiah's violent death (Ps 22; Isa 52-53; Zech 12:10). On the other hand, you have multiple texts about the Davidic messiah's triumphant, everlasting reign. But in terms of relative chronology, the messiah can't reign forever before he reigns ends in death. That would be contradictory. So that implies a messianic resurrection.

To be sure, an apologist would have to defend the messianic interpretation of Ps 22, Isa 52-53, and Zech 12:10. 

For further reading:

Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans, 2009)

Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011), 104-09.

C. E. B. Cranfield, "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ," On Romans and Other New Testament Essays (T&T Clark, 1998), chap. 11.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Crossway, 3rd ed., 2008), chap. 8.

Gary Habermas & Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004).

Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009), chap. 22.

Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP, 2010).

Lydia & Timothy McGrew, "The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth"


John Warwick Montgomery, "A New Approach to the Apologetic for Christ's Resurrection 13 by Way of Wigmore 's Juridician Analysis of Evidence" Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, 3/1 (2010):


Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Clarendon Press, 2003)

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

1 comment:

  1. There's a very helpful recent article on the possible naturalistic hypotheses: Loke, Andrew. ‘The resurrection of the Son of God: a reduction of the naturalistic alternatives.’ Journal of Theological Studies, 60 (2009): 570-584. Oxford University Press.

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