Jesus Christ: Liar? Lunatic? Legend? or God?/Program 3

By: Dr. John Warwick Montgomery; ©1988
Historical evidence, scientific evidence, evidence from just everyday reason, that will bring you to a conclusion that, namely, that He (Jesus) is God; He actually lived; He did things that verified His claim to being God. This program covers the topic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.



Recent surveys and polls show that 98% of Americans believe in God. But these same polls reveal many do not believe that Jesus Christ is the God they believe in. Tonight, John Ankerberg will examine the evidence and the claims of Christianity’s central figure to answer the question, “Was Jesus Christ a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or God?”

John’s guest is attorney John Warwick Montgomery, Dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law in the state of California and a practicing trial lawyer both in England and America.

During tonight’s program we will ask:

  • If a lawyer were to argue the claims of Jesus Christ in a court of law, what real evidence would he point to?
  • Are the biographies concerning Jesus’ life nothing more than legends that were written several hundred years after Jesus lived, or real historical documents written by eyewitnesses?
  • How would a lawyer determine whether the witnesses concerning Jesus’ life, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James and Peter, are lying or telling the truth?
  • How do the New Testament documents compare with other well-attested historical documents in the ancient world?
  • Is there any reason to believe we have a distorted view of what Jesus said and did because it happened so long ago?
  • If there is accurate historical information about Jesus Christ, is there any proof that Jesus actually claimed he was God?
  • Is there any evidence that Jesus ever offered proof to the people of his day to verify his claim that he was God?
  • What does a trial lawyer think about the evidence Christ presented to prove his claim of deity?

All of these questions and more will be answered during our program tonight. We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Welcome! This is our third week where we’re examining the evidence: historical evidence, scientific evidence, evidence from just everyday reason, that will bring you – if you will examine the evidence concerning Jesus Christ – will bring you to a conclusion, namely, that he is God; he actually lived; he did things that verified his claim to being God. And tonight, we’re right on that topic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You’ve heard this. You’ve seen it in the movies where they come right to the end, some will put it in there, some will fudge on that because they don’t really know what to do with it.
And, Dr. Montgomery, we talked last week about David Hume and the fact that many of our professors that watch, many of our lawyers and students at the university, they have been thrown off base by Hume’s argument concerning the miraculous; that it can’t happen, that we can’t verify the miraculous in history. And I think we ought to summarize what Hume said again, and start there, and then move on to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and especially, as you are an attorney, from a lawyer’s point of view and maybe compare the lawyer’s point of view versus the theologian’s high point of view. Why they might look at this a little differently, and who would we most want to have take a look at this evidence. Start us off with the fact of a summary from last week concerning Hume and why is the resurrection important to talk about anyway?
Montgomery: Most philosophical arguments against the miraculous derive from the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume. And Hume engaged in a perfectly circular piece of reasoning. He said that there is uniform experience against the miraculous, and he therefore concluded that miracles don’t occur. But that’s, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, just two ways of saying the same thing. It’s like saying if miracles don’t occur, why then miracles don’t occur.
Unfortunately, there’s been a tendency in the history of philosophy for philosophers to assume that you can solve problems as to the nature of things by some kind of deductive reasoning from first principles. But this is a very mysterious universe. It is a relativistic universe. We are living in an age of Einsteinian relativity, and we know perfectly well that the universe is too large to be embraced in that kind of deductive formulation. The only way we can find out that anything exists is to check the evidence for it. And that shows a difference in perspective on the part of philosophers in many instances from that of lawyers.
Lawyers deal with the particulars of evidence. Fascinatingly enough, there are some philosophers who have begun to recognize that the lawyers’ approach would be more helpful even in the field of philosophy. Steven Toulmin in his book The Uses of Argument has said, “Let’s use the model of jurisprudence because lawyers are concerned with investigating evidence and drawing conclusions on the basis of the evidence.” And so it seems to me that if we want to deal with the question as vital to religious truth as the question of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we’ve got to turn from philosophical speculation to the facts, to the evidence.
Ankerberg: Okay, why are we getting all excited about the resurrection in the first place? Why is it important to those that are listening?
Montgomery: Because if a person honestly looks within himself, he knows that the problem of death is at the very heart of his own experience. Existentialists have pointed out that only in death does life become truly meaningful. Great litterateur have used this as a central theme for what they have done. And psychologists tell us that we think about our own death perhaps once a week, maybe even more frequently. We know that this is the over-arching problem that we face. So, if someone comes along and says, “I can solve that problem. He who believes in me shall never see death.” [John 11:26] And he goes ahead and he demonstrates that he can conquer death, well, you’ll never have a better reason for worship as long as you live.
Ankerberg: Why is it that many of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith have been lawyers? And what do you think most of those lawyers would say about Paul Tillich’s statement that even if the historical facts referred to in the New Testament were doubtful,… or what he was saying was that if the resurrection didn’t take place, it wouldn’t hurt the Christian faith. You could still have the Christian faith without the historical event of the resurrection. What do you think most of the lawyers would say about that?
Montgomery: Well, it’s fascinating to see what a legal scholar recently had to say about that kind of liberal reasoning. He wasn’t referring specifically to Tillich, he was referring to those higher critics of the Bible that say, “It doesn’t make any difference whether this material is sound historically. We can still have a ‘faith experience’ in Jesus.” This kind of business. The man is Professor Sherwin White. He is an English scholar, and delivered a series of lectures at the University of Oxford, a lecture series entitled “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.”
And he used the New Testament as a basis for his conclusions about the nature of the Roman legal system. So he finally had to come down to the question of how sound those documents were. And he said, “I listen to liberal theologians, and the liberal theologians give me the impression that you can’t get any kind of solid historical picture of Jesus, and that it doesn’t make any difference.” Says Sherwin White, “This is very curious.” “Curious” is the English equivalent of “nutty” in American English. “This is very curious, when we look at these documents, because we look at them and they purport to be setting forth historical fact.” The people say, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the facts concerning Jesus. We were eyewitnesses of him.” [2 Pet. 1:16] And Sherwin White says, “We compared this with the other documents of antiquity, and both are trying to do the same thing.” He says, “Take the best known contemporary of Jesus Christ, Tiberius Caesar. What we know of Tiberius comes from four documents. Four documents. And none of them is as good as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And yet, we all consider that the evidence is sufficient for a decent historical picture of Tiberius Caesar.”
So, Sherwin White is saying from a lawyer’s perspective, “These theologians are a strange breed of cat. What we ought to do is to get down to the evidence and stop a great deal of the speculation that they are engaged in.”
Ankerberg: What do you think about Tillich’s statement?
Montgomery: I think it’s nonsense. If Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead, I would instantly seek another profession or kill myself. Probably the latter, because life would not have any meaning. The fact is that the truth of Christianity is directly dependent upon whether Jesus rose again from the dead.
Ankerberg: Yeah, let’s stay in that area just for a flash, because we have a lot of people in churches that do not preach the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and furthermore their pastors would tell them it doesn’t make any difference. Let’s talk about that one more time. Why does it make a difference? And what would you say to their pastors and to the philosophers and professors that taught those pastors?
Montgomery: Well, if Jesus didn’t rise again from the dead, there is no evidence that he was the person he claimed to be. How does he differ then from Jim Jones who gets a crowd of people around him and persuades them that he is some special kind of person? Or Father Divine, whom you mentioned? The situation then turns out to be one where people are worshiping simply because it makes them feel good.
Moreover, there isn’t any Gospel left if Jesus didn’t rise again from the dead because the Gospel consists of his death for our sins, and his resurrection for our justification. If he never rose again from the dead, then he never conquered death. And if he never conquered death, there’s no reason to think that the problem of sin and evil in the human heart is dealt with either. The whole Christian faith collapses. I think it’s too bad that it isn’t possible to remove clergy from their position who would try to eliminate the resurrection. My goodness! If you can get thrown out of the medical profession or the legal profession for malpractice as easily as you can, it’s too bad that there are so many clergy around who are literally cutting off the limb on which they’re sitting.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re going to take a break and when we come on back we’re going to take a look at a lawyer’s point of view of looking at the resurrection. Does the evidence add up to the fact that Jesus really did come forth from the dead? I’m going to let you try that case in just a little bit. Come on back.

Ankerberg: Alright, we’re talking about the actual historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Is there solid evidence that a thinking person in the twentieth century can look at that will bring him to the conclusion, “My goodness, a man actually came forth from the dead!” Dr. Montgomery, your school is named after one of the most famous lawyers that Harvard Law School ever had, Simon Greenleaf. Tell us a little bit about his story and what happened to him when he was challenged as a lawyer to look at this evidence. Being a lawyer, try the case for us as well.
Montgomery: Simon Greenleaf taught at Harvard in the middle of the nineteenth century, and he was the greatest common law authority on evidence. His three-volume work, modestly entitled Greenleaf on Evidence, was used in England as well as in the United States. And Greenleaf was a believing Christian. He was, incidentally, the author or chief author of the Constitution of the Colony of Liberia because of his concern with foreign missions. So he’s a founding father of Liberia; and he was a president of the Massachusetts Bible Society.
But we’re interested in him particularly because of a book that he wrote entitled The Testimony of the Evangelists. In this book, as it were, Greenleaf put Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the witness stand to see if their testimony to Jesus Christ and his resurrection would hold up in a common law court. And the conclusion was, absolutely; there is no question about it, the verdict would go in that direction. This is why he is the namesake of the Christian law school of which I am Dean that integrates law and theology in a regular legal curriculum and also offers a Master of Arts degree in the defense of the Christian faith, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, to use our Professor Josh McDowell’s favorite book title.
Ankerberg: How can legal reasoning assist in coming to a conclusion whether or not the resurrection occurred? Why is it that so many lawyers that have looked into this have become Christians?
Montgomery: If the evidence is evaluated by the same standards that apply in any legal case, the result is the conclusion that Jesus rose again from the dead. And since lawyers are experts in evidence and testimony, that means a great deal to them, concretely. There was a book done some years ago, not by a lawyer but by a man who was very much influenced by legal reasoning, Frank Morison. The book is entitled Who Moved the Stone? It’s a classic of Christian apologetics. In this book, Morison reasons as a lawyer. He says, “If Jesus didn’t rise again from the dead, you’re going to have to explain the missing body on Easter morning.”
The missing body. Now, bodies do not walk out of tombs unless there is a resurrection. So, if Jesus didn’t rise again from the dead, someone must have taken it. There are only three interest groups in the situation: the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, and the disciples. Would the Romans have stolen the body? Are you kidding? They are not in the provinces engaging in body snatching. They had no interest in doing so. To the contrary, they would have wanted, as Pilate did, to keep things quiet at all costs and certainly, leaving the body where it was would achieve that. The Jewish religious leaders were the very last people on the face of the globe to want to steal the body because they were at a disadvantage if even a rumor got started that Jesus had risen again from the dead. Indeed, they went to the Romans, asked for a guard for the tomb so that no rumors would start about the resurrection. What about the disciples? Well, listen to this closely. If the disciples had stolen the body, they then would have gone out and died for something they knew to be untrue.
Now, people die for things that are untrue; I mean, all the way through history people have died for lame-brained religious ideas. But it’s one thing to die for something you think is true and it isn’t, and a very different thing to die for something you know very well is untrue. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History in the fourth century has one of his very few humorous paragraphs on the subject in which he suggests that the disciples are sitting around after Easter and they say, “Well, of course, he didn’t rise again from the dead and we took the body and all that, but let’s go out and tell people that he rose again from the dead. Won’t it be fun! Of course, we’ll lose all our property. We’ll lose our friends. And let’s see, they crucified him, there’s no telling what they’re going to do to us, but it’ll be fun. Let’s go ahead and do it anyway!” I mean, this is just psychologically out of the question.
Ankerberg: What about Antony Flew’s objection that the disciples wouldn’t have taken the body of Jesus.
Montgomery: Well, Antony Flew attempts to deal with the last element of the argument I’ve just presented by saying, “Yes, it would be a psychological miracle for the disciples to go out and preach the resurrection after they themselves had stolen the body. But, says Flew, as a skeptic, “I prefer that psychological miracle to a biological miracle, namely, the resurrection.” Sounds pretty good, but, of course, Christians are not people who prefer biology to psychology. The reason that Christians go along with the resurrection is because of the eyewitness evidence to it. Had there been eyewitness evidence to the disciples having a screw loose somewhere, then Christians would probably go along with that. You know, if earlier writers said, “Ah, those disciples! They’re always doing things against their interests. They really are crazier than March hares!” That would be one thing. But the testimony that we have, the firsthand testimony is that they were sane, sober people. And so you cannot suddenly opt for a psychological miracle over against all the evidence. The difference between Flew and Christians, especially Christian lawyers who dealt with this, is not that Christians prefer one style of miracle over another. The difference is this, and it’s extremely important: Skeptics really are bothered by facts. They don’t want to face facts; whereas Christians place their beliefs directly on historical fact.
Ankerberg: Not only that, but the fact is that if you’re saying they went out because it psychologically made them feel good, then you are really passing up the truth question of whether they should have felt good or not. And that’s exactly what Christianity does when we talk about all these other religions, that they also have a feeling. We are saying many times, and maybe to people that are looking in that have a religious belief that is different than Christianity and it feels good. They’re comfortable. They’re psychologically in tune with that belief. The problem is, there’s no foundation. There’s no factual basis for it. Wouldn’t that be the same thing?
Montgomery: Yes, that’s quite right. And I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between truth and feelings. Now, we all have feelings, and the feelings are terribly important; but we’ve got to be so careful that we don’t allow feelings to mislead us. And in the area of religion it’s so easy for that to happen. You know, we mentioned Jonestown. The people who drank the spiked lemonade down there in British Guyana certainly had the greatest religious feelings toward Jim Jones, but the result was a perfect tragedy. Some of you may have seen the film version of “Cabaret.” At one point the camera pans a little German town and there is a young, handsome blonde member of the Hitler youth movement and he’s singing folk songs and you can see the expressions on the faces of these German citizens. Hope is coming back into their lives. They have something now that they didn’t have before. Sure! And what they actually ended up with was a demonic kind of belief that resulted in the death of six million Jews, political prisoners, Christians and everybody else. We’ve got to be sure that our religious beliefs and feelings are based in the truth. And the truth is that Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. All of the alternative explanations are out. They simply do not wash. And we are left with the eyewitness testimony over a 40-day period that Jesus rose again from the dead and that he had conquered the powers of death.
Ankerberg: I want to come back to this thing that we were talking about, the fact of how can legal reasoning assist us in evaluating the resurrection. I’m thinking of people that are saying, “You know, it sounds pretty good what you’re talking about. It sounds pretty good, this thing about the resurrection. But hey, fellow, you’re asking me to commit my entire life to this?” And I’m reminded of Lessing’s ugly ditch. Hey, you’ve got a historical event going here, but it’s not a hundred percent certainty. You’re talking probability, but you’re asking me to commit my entire life to that thing. Now, as a lawyer, help us out. I think you’re coming down the right line there.
Montgomery: Yeah, that’s where lawyers can help also because in the proof of facts in legal cases, the test is probability. The test is not absolute certainty or mere possibility. The fact of the matter is that where any facts are concerned, you never can get evidence that reaches 100% certainty. You can’t do it. The only place you can get a 100% certainty in any form of reasoning is a purely formal reasoning in which you define the certainty in to begin with. For example, in this statement: “All husbands are married.” That statement is absolutely certain. It’s certain because you’ve defined the certainty in by defining the terms. The minute you move off of that sort of statement to questions of fact, like “Is there a book on this table?” You’ve got to rely on probability.
Now, does that mean that we can’t make any ultimate commitments? Hardly! We make ultimate commitments on the basis of probability every day of our life. When a jury comes in with a verdict, that’s based on probability, but the verdict is 100% certain and will be acted upon by the court. Every time you cross the street you act on probability. And as the number of Porsches increase in the United States, the probabilities get less of successfully crossing the street. But, as you cross, you do not take 80% of yourself or 60% of yourself. Most of us take 100% of ourselves across the street. And we are committing ourselves totally then on the basis of probability. Every time we go up in an airplane; every time we sit in a building. There are only empirical stress formulae that determine that the building will hold up until the session finishes. All of our lives consist of making 100% decisions on the basis of probability.
Ankerberg: Okay, we’ve got one minute left. Summarize where we’re at and what you would have people do then with the information that we’ve given them tonight.
Montgomery: Right. What we’ve tried to show tonight is that there is powerful probabilistic evidence in favor of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is better evidence than most people use to get married. And what we are asking you to do is to exercise faith, which is simply jumping the gap from probability to certainty in relation to Jesus Christ.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re going to take a look at some more objections that people have brought up concerning the resurrection next week and continue to look at this concerning the way a lawyer might look at this information if he were trying a case. What does the judge tell the jury? How are they to decide when they’re working with facts that are just probable facts? Alright? Please join us. I think you’ll find it very interesting.

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