Previewing the Minimal Facts Critique of the Resurrection
If Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, Christians are to be pitied above all people. These are not my words, or even the words of a famous pastor or teacher. These are the words of Paul right out of his letter to the Corinthians:
[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified [concerning] God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise…. and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:14-15, 17-19)
Christianity, far from being closed to reason, invites investigation. The earliest adherents did not hide the fact that the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity. If it is true, it is the single most important event in human history. If it is false, it is the single most effective and influential hoax of all time. Christianity is built on the foundation of the resurrection, and without it, the entire structure of Christianity crumbles.
Dr Gary Habermas knew this when he was struggling with his faith, doubting the veracity of the Bible and Christianity. He knew that the resurrection was the central and crucial component of Christianity. If the resurrection did not happen, not only is the tomb empty, Christianity is a complete and utter sham.
That was over 30 years ago when Dr. Habermas began exploring the veracity of that claim that Jesus rose from the dead to confirm or deny his own doubts. That personal exploration led to a career of scholarship on the subject of the resurrection.
Those self-doubts and research to address them led to his doctoral dissertation in the 1970’s that stands today as one of the seminal scholarly works on the resurrection. Not that there is a lack of other scholarship on the subject. Dr. Habermas is also a bean counter of sorts. He has cataloged over 2400 articles by other scholars on the subject since 1975 (over 3500 total) and keeps a spreadsheet of the positions of the various scholars on the different facts related to the resurrection.
That catalog of viewpoints is important to his work because he has endeavored to discount any facts on which there is no consensus among the majority of scholars. Instead, he focuses on only those facts about which a clear majority of scholars agree, and most importantly, the facts on which the skeptical scholars agree.
The commitment to use only the clear majority consensus is in keeping with where he started his research many years ago. He began his doctoral thesis committing to avoid any conclusions that are unsupported by factual evidence, of which the Bible is only one historical source. Dr Habermas did not start from a premise that the Bible is inspired or even reliable. Most biblical scholars today do not believe either of those things, and he doubted them when he started his research over 30 years ago.
Dr. Habermas uses a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach. A top-down approach begins with assumptions about the inspiration of the Bible and its reliability. The bottom up approach starts from scratch with no preconceived assumptions.
The points on which 90 to 100 percent of scholars agree, including the skeptics, is that Jesus lived; he taught about the kingdom of God; he died by crucifixion; and his followers believed that Jesus appeared to them after his death. There is one other fact that 75 percent of all scholars concede, and that is that the tomb was empty. Dr Habermas uses only these facts in addressing the resurrection.
Further, he uses only those biblical texts that skeptical scholars concede are authentic. Skeptical scholars consider only six (6) letters purportedly from Paul to be authentic. He uses two of them: the letter to the Galatians; and the first letter to the Corinthians. Even skeptical scholars like Paul because he is clearly a scholarly thinker, and these two writings can be pinpointed in time because of the contemporary references in them.
Dr Habermas uses these writings merely as scholars would use any other ancient literature. Clearly these documents are ancient literature, whether anyone believes the assertions in them or not. He does not use these documents to prove any claims about the resurrection. He uses them simply as references and as corroboration of facts and evidence that are found in other sources. (See here for a summary of these and other minimal, widely accepted facts associated with the resurrection story.)
For instance, the earliest accounts of the appearances of Christ after his death are found in various portions of the New Testament. He does not accept those accounts as proof of the resurrection, but simply as an indication that the early followers thought they saw and encountered the risen Christ. The fact that the early followers thought Jesus appeared to them is reflected in other, non-biblical documents that followed.
Therefore, he concludes that the followers of Christ thought Christ appeared to people in person after his death, and no more. That fact (that early followers thought Jesus was resurrected and appeared to them) is accepted as true by virtually all scholars who study these things, even the most skeptical of them.
From that launching point, he addresses the main arguments against the resurrection of Jesus. Those arguments are that Jesus did not rise from the dead because:
- Miracles do not happen, and the resurrection would be a miracle; therefore the resurrection did not happen;
- The disciples stole the body out of the tomb, and then they lied about it;
- Someone other than the disciples stole the body out the tomb and fooled his followers (like the Jews, the Romans, the gardener or Joseph of Arimethia);
- The people who claimed to encounter Jesus after his death were hallucinating;
- Jesus did not die on the cross; he actually just passed out and was taken down from the cross alive;
- Christians borrowed the death and resurrection idea from paganism and just perpetuated it.
We can add two more:
- Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus), who was a persecutor of the Christians, suddenly changed his beliefs towards Christianity; and
- James (brother of Jesus), who was a skeptic of the Christian faith, suddenly changed his beliefs towards Christianity.
Before listening to the analysis, let me say this: if you are a skeptic, that is alright. Being honest is a positive, not a negative. If you have determined from the outset that the resurrection of Christ is impossible because miracles do not happen, then you are just close minded. If resurrection is not even the remotest possibility in your mind, then you have already come to a conclusion without hearing any facts. That is not very scientific.
There are many people who will not accept anything but a rational, materialistic explanation. I find that ironic because a purely rational, materialistic worldview can not even give an account for itself. If we are the product of irrational matter randomly combining to form life, how do we explain reason? If reason itself is merely a byproduct of irrational material and random forces, reason itself cannot be accepted as reliable. Rejecting the resurrection a priori is simply refusing to be open minded and refusing to consider the facts.
The following video is long, but well worth the time.