Can We Trust the New Testament?/Program 1

By: Lee Strobel; ©2007
Few dispute that Jesus tomb was empty. The question is, why was it empty? What theories have been offered to explain it?



Announcer: For 13 years Lee Strobel was the legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and an outspoken atheist. His wife’s conversion sent him on a two year investigation to prove Christianity was false. But the evidence led him to become a Christian instead. He wrote about the evidence he discovered in his bestselling book The Case for Christ.

But recently, new explanations have arisen claiming to refute Jesus’ resurrection. Lee went back to investigate the evidence for these new theories and today you will hear what he discovered. Join us for this special edition of The John Ankerberg Show.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. What a great one. We have got a great guest. His name is Lee Strobel. He is a best selling author and for 13 years he lived in Chicago. He was the legal editor of the Chicago Tribune. And during that time he was an atheist. He just did not believe in God and he thought it was weird for anyone else to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. His wife became a Christian and it started him on investigating The Case for Christ, really to disprove it, to save her. But the evidence brought him to Christ. And we are talking about that evidence that he discovered and that he has put into his books that have become these best selling books. But we are also now looking at the new attacks in the last couple of years that modern scholarship has brought against the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Who are they and what they are saying. We started this last week and we are going to continue it this week. These are popular things that you have heard and maybe you have had a question yourself. So I hope that you will stay tuned as we go through these things.
Lee, I am glad that you are here. Let’s pick up this thing of the objections or the supposed theories that replace the explanation that Jesus really did rise from the dead. We have got five facts that are minimal facts that we have talked about that all scholars across the spectrum basically believe. And we are trying to say we think then if you have got those five facts this is the best explanation, that Jesus rose from the dead. What are those five facts again, first of all?
Mr. Lee Strobel: That Jesus was executed; the belief of the disciples that He appeared to them alive after He was crucified – in other words, that He had been resurrected; the conversion of Saul who was a persecutor of Christians, became the apostle Paul; the conversion of another skeptic, James, His half brother, who didn’t follow Him during His lifetime and yet died as a leader of the local church because he encountered Jesus at the resurrection; and the empty tomb, which 75% of critical scholars concede is an historic reality.
Ankerberg: Alright. This attack by modern scholarship comes on the empty tomb and the reason it was empty. It wasn’t because Jesus rose from the dead, but if given a naturalistic explanation of how things work in the universe, what they are saying is that there has got to be something else, and what they have gravitated toward was Jesus’ body was moved by somebody else, either the family members of somebody else. Talk a little bit about that.
Strobel: This is so, I’m sorry, it’s crazy to me, because it is almost like saying, “Oh, yeah, by the way, excuse me. Christianity has been like a little mistake, over 2000… it’s just a mistake, it’s just an error.” Let’s think about this for just a minute. First of all, the person who really is propagating this theory, James Tabor, who is a well respected professor, atheist, who studies this kind of thing. He is, by his own admission, a metaphysical naturalist, which means he rules out the possibility of the supernatural at the beginning. And so since that is impossible and the resurrection in his view philosophically is impossible, there cannot be a resurrection. Therefore, any explanation will suffice, I don’t care how crazy it is. And so his explanation is yes, they buried the body; but then the family probably or somebody else came and moved the body, and that is why the tomb is empty.
Well, hello! That is the explanation? I mean, how many problems do you want me to mention to this? Number one, you’d think if the family moved the body and we start having disciples declaring that He has returned from the dead and dying for that belief, they would have said, “Excuse me. It is all a mistake. The body, we moved it, it is over here.” There is no evidence. That is ridiculous.
Number two, the disciples and the followers of Jesus were not really convinced that Jesus rose from the dead because of the empty tomb, with the possible exception of John. What convinced them? Their personal encounters with the resurrected Jesus, which the moving of the body explanation doesn’t even address. John, here is the big problem. There are certain historians and scientists who are metaphysical naturalists who rule out the possibility of the supernatural at the outset and now say, bring on the evidence, you know. Well, is that being open minded? Isn’t it more open minded to say, “I am going to be humble about the question of whether or not the supernatural exists. I am not saying it exists, I am not saying it doesn’t. I am just saying I am open to wherever the evidence takes me.” Seems to me that is being open-minded; seems to me that is responding to the data historically. And if it takes you to the conclusion that perhaps the best explanation for all of these facts is the resurrection then, doggone it, I think it is being intellectually dishonest not to consider that.
Now, to give you an example, Antony Flew, the world’s most famous philosophical atheist; and I had a chance, as I know you have, to sit down with him and to talk to him, now that he has in a monumental decision changed his mind, abandoned atheism, and now believes in a supernatural creator of the universe. And I will never forget, he said, “Lee, I had to go where the evidence took me.” To me that is an honest individual. And yes, it took him to an uncomfortable position. I have got to abandon a lifetime of 40 books on atheism, and I have got to abandon that and say, “You know what? I was wrong. I do believe in a supernatural creator.” Now he is not a Christian yet; I think he is in process, by God’s grace, but he has come to that decision because he was willing to follow the evidence wherever it pointed.
Ankerberg: By the way, Lee, I think some folks that are listening, they need to recognize to become a Christian sometimes you need courage.
Strobel: Yeah.
Ankerberg: These people have said things about Jesus all their life and kind of made humor of folks that have believed in Christ, and then all of a sudden they come face to face with the facts; and they say, goodness sake, if I become a Christian now, what are folks going to say. And that is something that you have to deal with, okay?
Strobel: It is. You are absolutely right. I mean, it was a big step for me, having bragged to all of my friends since I was 16 years old that I was an atheist and made fun of them and belittled them for their faith. To have to say, you know what, I was wrong…
Ankerberg: It is interesting. Richard Carrier, you just kind of reversed the thing, because look, you have got to account for the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, so now we will posit an empty tomb.
Strobel: Right. They will make up the empty tomb to try to account for it. Well, you know what, I think evidence is strong that the tomb was empty, especially when you have the critics of Jesus conceding it was empty.
Ankerberg: Yeah, explain that.
Strobel: Yeah, I mean they tried to come up with an explanation to explain why it was empty, which presupposes that there wasn’t a body in it. They said, “Well, the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep.” Well, nobody believed it back then and nobody believes it today; it is a ridiculous explanation. But it is conceding that the tomb was really empty. I think the evidence is clear. And this idea that the body was relocated, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me that Mary doesn’t pull aside these guys before they were put to death and say, “You know what? This is all a mistake, it is all a misunderstanding. The body is two block to the south.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. Some people say, “Well, you know, you had “group think” here in the sense that maybe Paul or maybe Peter had a vision, okay? And on the basis of that vision – not a literal bodily appearance of Jesus to them, but this vision – they then went and persuaded all the other guys, all the other disciples, that they should believe in the literal physical resurrection even though they saw only a vision over here. Now, David Koresh, you had a great illustration about if something like that happened to David Koresh, what would the rest of us think? Tell us that story.
Strobel: Yeah. I was doing my book The Case for the Real Jesus, and one of the scholars said to me, “Well, David Koresh predicted he would rise from the dead. What if you now went to the morgue and his body was no longer there? Would you automatically conclude he was risen from the dead? Would you become a Branch Davidian? No! Why? An empty tomb does not a resurrection make. It is part of the evidence; it is not the whole evidence. There could be other explanations for the tomb being empty. You have to rule out those other explanations, and you have to look at the other affirmative evidence that people did encounter Jesus as having been resurrected.
This idea that you raised, that perhaps this was just a subjective psychological experience that Paul had and therefore he convinced others. Well, number one, he was not set up for a psychological experience. He was an opponent of Christianity. Number two, his experience was not just subjective; but other people who were with him heard the light, or saw the light. They knew what was going on, that something was going on, even though they did not hear God’s voice as Paul did. So this wasn’t just subjective. Number three, he says… how clear do we want him to say it than in Acts 13:37 where he said Jesus’ body “did not see decay.” In other words, the tomb is empty.
People want to say, “Well, why didn’t Paul come out and use the words ‘empty tomb’?” And I will never forget. I raised that question. I was working on my book and I interviewed Michael Licona, who is an expert on the resurrection. I said, “Why didn’t Paul just come out and say it?” He said, “Well, it was understood. It was like if you say a child dies of sudden infant death syndrome, you don’t have to say the crib is empty. Of course the crib is empty.” The Jewish conception of resurrection is a physical resurrection. And Paul said it in Acts 13, the creed that he reports to the church in Corinth, that dates back so early it cannot be legend, specifically says that Christ was buried and then his body was raised. [Acts 13:29-30] And this is so clear to me. I think it is a red herring. I think people who claim that Paul didn’t believe in an empty tomb, frankly are grasping at straws.
Ankerberg: Yeah, I will give you another one that showed up on Stone Phillips on Dateline, and it was with Tabor. And Tabor not only said that the body was moved, but he knows where it was moved to!
Strobel: Yeah. This is what kills me. Now, you know, I have got to give him his due. Tabor is a respected historian. I am not making fun of him. But having said that, in his book The Jesus Dynasty he says, “I think I know where the body is buried.” Really, where? And then he gives a location. Well, that is interesting. Where did you find that out? Well, it turns out it is a 16th century Jewish mystic and Cabbalist who had a vision that told that. And I remember another scholar, Craig Evans, said, “Well, if you are going to believe in a vision of a 16th century Jewish mystic, why don’t you believe the account of the apostle Paul right there in the first century of this very concrete experience he had with the resurrected Jesus?” You talk about picking and choosing what you want to believe. It just does not make sense.
But, John, this is what you get when you start with the bias and the presupposition that the supernatural is impossible. You have to come up with some crazy explanation for things. And that is why these minimal facts are so important. Because we can either feed our biases, as I think a lot of these historians do, and just go for the most bizarre explanation and feed their biases, or you can try to minimize your biases. Because we all have biases. And what the minimal facts do is they level the playing field by saying, “Hey, these are the facts that, we know, we studied in 2200 sources written by critics of Christianity and believers in Christianity, scholarly reports on the resurrection going back 30 years, French, German and English, and this is universal, virtually, that they accept these facts: the empty tomb, 75% as opposed to virtual unanimity, but still that is a huge percentage a vast majority. And so that is a way to factor out our biases. If people who are opponents of Christianity are even conceding that these facts are true, then that tells you that you are not feeding your biases.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Folks, we are going to take a break here. But listen, when you examine some of these theories they turn out to be really crazy theories and they just do not fit the facts. And you have got to deal with the facts. And that is what we are trying to do. We have got a couple more theories, and what we are going to start with right after the break is Jesus’ family tomb. Supposedly they found a bone box with Jesus’ bones in there; and that would mean that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. And we are going to talk about that when we come right back.

Ankerberg: Alright, we are back. And we are talking with Lee Strobel who is the former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune for 13 years. He was a skeptic, but as he searched the evidence concerning Christ, he was persuaded by it that Jesus actually rose from the dead. And we are having him share his story with you. But we are talking right now about the objections, in the last two or three years of modern scholarship, to the very thing that he accepted as being true; namely, that Jesus did rise from the dead. And one of the objections made a big splash, and it is not heard of too much right now, but it was a big splash of Jesus’ family tomb, namely that they found these bone boxes, one of which was Jesus’, and the bones supposedly were in that box, which shows there was no resurrection. Talk to that.
Strobel: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think you are right, it has died down. And one of the reasons it died down is because so many experts have stepped forward and saying it doesn’t make sense, the evidence does not add up. And, consequently, we see it has been kind of deflated in terms of its popular acceptance.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I do you one further. A week after the thing played, all of the people that were cited in the special all denied it, except James Tabor.
Strobel: Right. It is very interesting how many people backpedaled and said they were misrepresented or whatever. But I think it is interesting, too, if you look at the book that James Cameron, who was the movie producer of The Titanic, who wrote, co-authored, the book about this, his first line in that book says, paraphrasing, but I will tell you what it basically says: More and more scholars are now coming to the conclusion that Jesus never really existed. That right there tells you this guy is out to lunch.
Ankerberg: He doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Strobel: Doesn’t know what he is talking about. That is demonstrably false. That is just an incredibly inaccurate summation of the evidence. Only the lunatic fringe believes that Jesus never really existed. But that tells you sort of the responsible level of their scholarship when you get into this thing. It tells you something about their thinking process.
The truth is they found some remains in a tomb outside of Jerusalem. The two archaeologists who actually made the discovery said they didn’t think, they didn’t believe, in fact, there is virtually no chance that this is actually Jesus’ tomb. So you have the original discoverers of the tomb discounting it in the first place. It did have some boxes, ossuaries, where they would collect the bones of the dead. They would bury someone and come back later, a year later or so, and collect the bones into a box called an ossuary. And there were names on them, and one of them was Jesus, who was son of Joseph, and then there was, well others of His family supposedly with similar names.
Well, you know there was one Mary. But one out of every four or five women in that time period, Jewish women, was named Mary. This was not unusual at all. In fact, there were about 1000 people named Jesus who had a father named Joseph in Jerusalem in that timeframe. And if you even took into account all the other names on the ossuaries, there is only one chance in 11 that this would be Jesus’ tomb and that, of course, ignores all of the other evidence to the contrary. I am just looking at it mathematically, it is like a 9% chance.
Plus the fact, not just the ossuaries that they talked about on the TV show, I think nine or ten or whatever it was, there were actually like 30 that were found in there. So when you factor those in it gets even more confused. And so this is just something that is fading from public consciousness finally, because enough people have stepped forward to say, “You know what, this doesn’t add up. The evidence does not point in that direction. This is not Jesus tomb.” And so I think we are safe in discarding that.
Ankerberg: Absolutely. Let’s go to another one that people kind of gravitate toward. Let’s talk about Robert Price. You had him on the program that, he was saying that the body was not recognizable after seven weeks so that the disciples could get away with saying the tomb was empty. They couldn’t prove it was Jesus.
Strobel: Right, yeah. This is so bizarre to me to say, “Oh, the disciples, they were very clever. They waited seven weeks before they started declaring the resurrection. Give the body enough time to decompose so that, even if you went back to the tomb, you couldn’t tell anything. It was just bones and so forth.” Well, number one, why would the disciples plot like that to say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s wait seven weeks and then let’s lie and say Jesus returned from the dead; because I am really anxious to be tortured to death here. So come on, guys, let’s go do it.” That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Number two, all the Roman authorities had to do was to go back to the tomb or a tomb and say, “Oh, here is a body. There is your Jesus.” Now, the onus would have been on the disciples to prove it wasn’t Jesus. There was nothing in the historical record to show that is actually what happened. And, frankly, the reason that the Romans did not try to go back and do that is because the tomb was empty. There was no body and it wasn’t possible for them to do it.
Ankerberg: Yeah, so when you look at all these modern objections, were you surprised to find out how weak they were?
Strobel: I was, John. You know, I wrote The Case for Christ in 1998, and it really was the summation of the evidence that convinced me that Jesus is the unique Son of God. And as you say, since then there have been these attacks; and it is on the Internet, and it is in college classrooms, it is in best selling books, it is in TV documentaries. And I had to go on and say, “Wait a minute. I am supposed to be an open-minded individual here. I need to pursue these objections and come to a conclusion about whether or not there is any merit to them. And this is what led to my book The Case for the Real Jesus. But as I investigated them, John, time after time after time I would say, this is ridiculous, this is absurd, this makes no sense, this has no historical weight. I was astonished that there are men and women who are thinking, intelligent people, historians, who come to bizarre conclusions because they have to get around, somehow, the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
Ankerberg: Alright, you may have some people that are saying, “Listen. You know, Strobel, what you are saying really sounds attractive; but, boy, I just can’t believe this thing. If I believe this thing, I have got to change my life. And I mean, what would it be like to invite Christ into my life and become a Christian?”
Strobel: You know what? If it is true, and that Jesus is who He claims to be, and God exists, and He wants us to have a relationship with Him, He created us, then He knows the best way for us to live. I have lived my life apart from Christ, and I know what that is like. And I know my efforts through all sorts of immorality to try to find pleasure and joy and fulfillment in life. And I want to tell you something, John; it was empty, it was folly. And I know now what it is like to follow Jesus Christ. And it is the adventure of a lifetime. It is the adventure of a lifetime.
And I think of my friend Evel Knievel, who in his twilight of his life, because he is dying now, doesn’t have too much longer to live. In the twilight of his life he received Jesus Christ. And he is forgiven from a life of promiscuity and drunkenness and immorality. And he is so full of thanksgiving and joy because of this. But he tells me, “Lee, all those years I wish I had lived it differently.” And he is at the end of his life and it is too late.
My father-in-law, an atheist his entire life until age 89, came to Christ in the last cogent conversation of his life before he died. And my first reaction is, “Thank God that His grace is big enough to forgive even that.” But what a waste. He could have known the adventure of following Jesus his entire life. He could have known what it was like to have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. I tell people you don’t want to miss this; this is what life is about.
Ankerberg: Okay. Some people are saying right now, “Strobel, I believe it.” But it is more than just believing it, because the train is leaving the station here for you folks, and you are still sitting on the sideline. There was a spot where you not only believed, but you realized you had to act on it. What did that mean, how did you invite Christ to come into your life and have this personal relationship with Christ? How did you start it?
Strobel: John 1:12 is the verse that I remember somebody pointed out, “But as many as received Him to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those that believed in His name.” And to me, it kind of formed an equation to become a child of God. Believe + received = become. So I said, I do believe. Based on this evidence, how can you not believe? If you are open minded, where does it take you? It takes you to the inevitable conclusion: Jesus proved He was the Son of God by returning from the dead. But that is not enough. The Bible says demons believe and they tremble. It is not enough just to be in general agreement with Christian doctrine. It is not enough to, as you say, sit on the sideline and just kind of nod your head say, “I think he’s right, I think he’s right.”
Wait a minute, at some point it is believe plus receive. There needs to be a moment in time where you receive what Jesus did on the cross as applied to your life. He died as our substitute, to pay for all of the wrongdoing we have committed, so that He can offer forgiveness as a free gift that we can receive, that we can be “born again.” We can receive Christ, we can know Him personally the rest of our lives. And then when we die, we can go into eternity and know Him forever in a place called heaven. That is reality.
And I just think of my daughter. All she knew the first five years of her life was a dad who was drunk and angry and swearing and kicking holes in walls, and then who saw how God changed my life and how she has now been transformed herself. And, John, if I had only brought her and have her sit in this chair and let her look at especially the dads out there and say, what is it about this offer of God that you don’t want? What is it about being forgiven of all of your sin past, present and future? What is it about having a relationship with the God of the Universe? What is it about spending eternity in a perfect state with Him called heaven? What is it about this free offer you don’t want? I think she would say, do it for yourself, do it for your family, do it for your family do it for your spouse, do it for your grandchildren.
Ankerberg: Folks, now listen. Some of you have watched this program for a long time. You agree with the stuff that is being said, but you haven’t gotten off the bench and into the game. You have not given your life to Christ. You need to do that, and this may be the moment. I am going to ask Lee to say a prayer, one that is similar to the one that he said when he invited Christ into his life. And today, if you have got the courage, if you believe that the evidence does point to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and proves that He is God, right now would you let Christ come in and do the saving that you need to have done in your life? Would you let Him forgive you? Are you opposed to that? Is there any objection you would have? If not, say this prayer with Lee right now. Lee?
Strobel: Say, “Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner. I know I have done things wrong. I knew they were wrong before I did them, and I did them anyway. And I confess my sin. I confess my wrongdoing, and I want to turn from that. And Lord Jesus, I want to receive this freely offered gift of forgiveness and eternal life that You have purchased by Your death on the cross. Forgive me for all I have done. Give me eternal life in heaven forever with You. Lord Jesus, I believe that You are the Son of God, that You proved it by returning from the dead. And now I receive You as my forgiver and as my leader. And I look forward to You being my very, very, very best friend. Amen.”
Ankerberg: Amen. Folks, next week we are going to turn the tables one more time and we are going to look at, supposedly, the new ancient documents, or the old ancient documents, that have a new radical Jesus that are found in those documents. Some scholars say these came out real close to the time that the four gospels came out, and so this is just an alternative Christianity; it is another Jesus that it is possible for you to believe in. Is that true? Should we give up Jesus, the traditional beliefs that we have in Jesus? No, I don’t think so. But you are going to need to learn why, and so I hope that you will join us next week.

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