Questions Surrounding Jesus’ Resurrection/Part 1




For 2,000 years, the Christian Church has proclaimed that, at the end of His life, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a cross, honorably buried, and then on the third day, rose from the dead.

But others claim Jesus didn’t die on the cross. He simply passed out and revived in the tomb. Some modern scholars claim Jesus’ body was taken off the cross, thrown on a garbage heap, and devoured by wild dogs. The so-called “Resurrection Appearances” of Jesus were nothing more than hallucinations or “grief visions,” not literal, physical appearances of Jesus Himself.

What does an examination of the historical evidence from both secular and Christian sources reveal? What difference does it make in your life if the evidence does lead to the conclusion that Jesus actually rose from the dead?

We invite you to join us for this special edition of The John Ankerberg Show and hear world-class historians, theologians, and archaeologists address these issues.

Dr. John Ankerberg: I’d like to begin our program today with an excerpt from our debate between Dr. Antony Flew and Dr. Gary Habermas.

Ankerberg: Welcome! We have two guests today that are very special that are debating the topic: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” They are: Dr. Antony Flew, considered by many to be the world’s foremost philosophical atheist; a man who has authored more than 23 books including Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, God and Philosophy, Introduction to Western Philosophy, The Presumption of Atheism and Other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom, and Immortality.

My second guest is Dr. Gary Habermas, a renowned Christian philosopher and historian, who is considered by many to be the foremost expert on the evidence, the historical evidence, for Jesus’ resurrection. Gary has authored 21 books including The Historical Jesus, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, In Defense of Miracles, and Why Believe? God Exists!

Gentlemen, we’re glad that you are here.

Dr. Habermas, I think the people that are watching right now, we’re talking about, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” They’re saying, “Come on! I mean, you’re saying there’s evidence? There’s facts in history?” When you see magazines like Newsweek and Time that come out every six or eight months it seems–here’s another one on “Visions of Jesus.” You’ve got all kinds of stuff in these magazines but they keep on saying, “There’s very little evidence.” Now, you come along and you write this little book called The Historical Jesus and all of a sudden, you talk about the fact that when you were at Michigan State working on your Ph.D., you were a skeptic yourself and the facts brought you to a belief in Jesus. You have said there are at least 12 historical facts that are virtually agreed by all critical scholars today. I’d like you to let us know what the case is. Start us off tonight.

Dr. Gary Habermas: Well, John, just to name some of those highlights.

  • Virtually everybody today thinks that Jesus died due to crucifixion. I mean, John Crossan and others from the Jesus Seminar say it’s the most widely known fact in the ancient world.
  • He was buried.
  • Of course, this event inspired some despair in the disciples.
  • Now, the fact that the tomb was empty is admitted by most scholars but not as widely admitted as the rest in this list.
  • Probably the single most important fact is that the disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  • They were transformed as a result.
  • The Resurrection was their central message.
  • They preached in Jerusalem.
  • The Church was born.
  • We have some individuals like James and Paul, two former skeptics–one a family skeptic, one an outsider who persecuted Christians–and they also came to Christ by experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus.

By the way, there are a lot of other scholars today in the historical Jesus movement way far to the left of me who also start with lists of facts just like this as sort of a common ground from which we can deal with our data.

Ankerberg: Now, Tony, what do you think about Habermas’ facts there?

Dr. Antony Flew: Well, I don’t dispute those facts but I want to say, yes, but…. And the evidential situation is in many ways very unsatisfactory. For a start, no one knows in what year the crucial event of the crucifixion and consequently the other events occurred. And this is a very remarkable thing that no one knows the birth date–well, there are a great many birth dates of important people that are not known. The other lack is, all our evidence is based on documents written by believing Christians, none of whom was himself an eyewitness, and we have absolutely nothing from the rest of the population of Jerusalem to tell us why it was they weren’t converted and whether the earthquakes and other alleged miracles actually occurred or not.

Ankerberg: What do you think about that, Gary?

Habermas: Well, now, when you say none of these early Christian authors were eyewitnesses, of course I think from your writings you exempt Paul. Right? You believe the Apostle Paul was an eyewitness?

Flew: Oh, gosh, yes. I was thinking of the Gospel writers.

Habermas: Right. But with Paul we have an authentic eyewitness.

Flew: Absolutely.

Habermas: You would grant the number of authentic Pauline books.

Flew: Oh, yes. But he wasn’t in Jerusalem, of course, at that time.

Habermas: Well, shortly afterwards, of course, he was there when Stephen was stoned. But also I would disagree about the extra-biblical data. I think we do have extra-biblical data for most everything; I will say that everything on that factual list that I gave, everything except probably the despair of the disciples–which is a good psychological fact–but all the rest of them can be established through Paul alone. But I think the majority of them can be witnessed to in ancient extra-biblical literature.

Ankerberg: This discussion is typical of conversations between Christians and non-Christians concerning the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” Non-Christians usually claim there is not enough historical evidence, there are no eyewitness testimonies, and the Gospels were written long after Jesus lived by those who didn’t even know Him. Further, there is no evidence from secular or non-Christian sources that substantiate the historical outline about Jesus as found in the Gospels. They then conclude, “How is it that if Jesus was so important, we do not even know the birth date of Jesus nor when He was crucified?” Concerning this last question, I talked with Dr. Darrell Bock, Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Ankerberg: Peter Jennings opened his special by saying, “We suspected that reliable sources would be hard to come by.” And he said that not only are there reliable sources hard to come by, he said there’s a lack of evidence concerning Jesus’ life in terms of the historical Jesus. Is that true?

Bock: No. Not really. There actually is quite a bit of historical evidence, especially concerning how obscure at one level a figure Jesus was. He was tucked away in a rural part of the Roman Empire and as He was tucked away in that rural part in the context of a vast empire, one would think you would know very little about Him. But in fact, He pops up in a whole lot of places.

Ankerberg: A lot of people say that there are no secular non-Christian sources about Jesus that confirm the historical facts that are found in the New Testament. Is that true or false?

Bock: No. That’s false. We have several sources outside the Bible that confirm the existence of Jesus and they say very important things about Jesus.

Ankerberg: Such as?

Bock: We have Tacitus who says that Pontius Pilate was responsible for the execution. That’s a Roman historian talking about a Roman governor. We have Josephus, a Jewish historian, saying Pontius Pilate is responsible for the execution of Jesus and “our people” put him up to it. So that’s a Jewish historian talking about the Jewish contribution to the discussion. We have Jewish sources that talk about Jesus as a magician and sorcerer, acknowledging that He did unusual works. That’s something that Josephus also tells us. So not only do we have corroboration, in some cases we have double corroboration.

Ankerberg: Concerning Antony Flew’s question, “When was Jesus born?,” most historians have concluded Jesus was born before April of 4 B.C. Why? In Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5 we are told Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still living. According to Matthew 2:15, Herod died while Jesus was less than two years old. On the basis of Roman records, historians have calculated Herod’s death occurred in 4 B.C. Then Josephus records an eclipse of the moon the year Herod died. That eclipse has been dated by astronomers as happening March 12 of 4 B.C. Josephus also tells us that the Passover in 4 B.C. occurred soon after Herod’s son, Archelaus, assumed the kingship. Historians know the Passover occurred on April 17 of that year. If we put all these facts together, since Jesus was born before Herod died, the evidence shows He must have been born before April 4 B.C., or possibly a short time before that in 5 B.C.

Now, concerning the next question, “How accurate are the four Gospels and were any of them written by eyewitnesses?” I’d like you to listen to a clip from our program with Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, a man who holds two Ph.D.’s and is a practicing trial attorney.

Dr. John W. Montgomery: The first Gospel was written by Matthew Levi, a tax collector, who became an apostle, a disciple of Jesus, and who wrote on the basis of his own observation of what Jesus said and did. The fourth Gospel was written by John who was the youngest of the disciples and lived the longest. We have independent evidence that he died in the city of Ephesus around the year 95. We have records of two of his students where they indicate to us that John was in fact the author of that book, and he passed on information to them about the authorship of the other major Gospels. The second Gospel was written by John Mark who was a companion of Peter, one of the apostles, and Luke’s Gospel was written by the physician who accompanied the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. And Paul was accepted by the original eleven apostles as a legitimate apostle in his own right.

Ankerberg: And of course you’ve got James and Peter.

Montgomery: Those as well.

Ankerberg: That’s right. So you have seven eyewitnesses that said they were either there or checked out other witnesses and gave us information, which is what we have in the New Testament. But then I can hear many of the folks that are listening in right now, they would be saying, “But Dr. Montgomery, you know those were all the disciples of Jesus. Those were His friends. Didn’t they pad the case? I mean, didn’t they really kind of make it up and lift Jesus up? And we really don’t have any skeptics in the group there, we just have good friends of Jesus. How do we know that they actually are telling us the truth about what Jesus actually did?”

Montgomery: That’s one of the central questions, and it seems to me we need to face that directly, and there are two things we need to see about it. First of all, these people did not start out as believers. In fact, after Jesus’ crucifixion, they were back at the old fishing nets. They quite obviously had not arrived at the belief reflected in the writings that they produced later. What changed their minds was the resurrection itself. We see this in the case of Thomas, who wouldn’t believe unless he could touch the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into His side after the resurrection. That’s the first thing.

Second thing is, it doesn’t really make any difference whether a writer about Jesus or a writer about anything else is a friend of the person that he writes about, if he produces his writings in an environment where there are hostile witnesses. The fact is that the early apostles went out and presented what we have in the New Testament in a primarily Jewish audience, particularly in the synagogues. And the Jewish religious leaders had been the primary opponents of Jesus’ message. Now, it is inconceivable that the disciples, friends of Jesus or not, could have gotten away with incorrect information about Jesus in the presence of hostile witnesses who had themselves had contact with Jesus’ life and who had what we lawyers call “means, motive and opportunity” to destroy that picture.

Ankerberg: We are examining the historical records of Jesus’ life to see if we can discover if the evidence shows Jesus actually rose from the dead. At the beginning of the program, Dr. Gary Habermas referred to twelve historical facts that virtually all critical scholars today accept. I asked him to share those facts with you. Listen.

Habermas: Most scholars will give you a list of facts surrounding the events that Christians call the Gospel: the trial, the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus. I think there are at least 12 facts, at least 12. I mean, the vast majority of scholars will give you more than these, but there are at least 12 facts that critical scholars admit. Virtually every scholar will admit virtually every one of these.

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried. Nothing strange about these things. Most people die. Most people are buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing His life had ended. What would you say if your best friend died and very suddenly?
4. Now, I admit this one is not as widely held, but many scholars believe that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
5. The disciples had experiences–and I’ll say this the way that even the critics will be able to accept it, I think–the disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. They thought Jesus appeared to them.
6. Because of these experiences, they [the disciples] were transformed from doubters–they were afraid of their own shadow, so to speak, and certainly afraid to identify themselves with Jesus–into bold proclaimers of His death and resurrection.
7. This message was the center of preaching in the early Church. Remember what Paul said–”Of first importance”: death, burial, resurrection of Jesus.
8. This message was especially proclaimed in the environs of Jerusalem where Jesus died and was buried just shortly before.
9. As a result of this preaching, the Church was born and it grew.
10. Sunday became the primary day of worship. And that’s significant for Jewish believers.
11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also “believed” that he saw the resurrected Jesus.
12. A few years later, Paul was converted by an experience which he likewise “believed” to be the appearance of the risen Jesus.

What I’m saying here is that, with the exception of the empty tomb, virtually all critical scholars accept this list as historical, and most of them will even grant the empty tomb. And if you want to check some of the writings I’ve done on this, The Historical Jesus and some of the books by others, you can find lists of critical scholars who accept all of these things.

Now, you might say, “Now, wait a minute. Twelve? That’s not bad, but can we cut this list down? Can we get some more skeptics involved by being even more picky in what we take?

All right. I’ll arbitrarily reduce this list to say four, five, six–somewhere in there. And if I were to reduce this list, I would say something like the following: [1] Jesus died due to crucifixion. [2] The disciples had experiences that they believed were the appearance of the risen Jesus. [3] Their lives were transformed because of that, and [4] later, a man named Saul of Tarsus believed that he was converted to Jesus by an appearance, a personal appearance of the risen Jesus to him.

These are four tough facts that virtually anybody is going to give you. And I think that we can build a case for that central proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus based on just these four facts alone.

Ankerberg: Now, these are just 12 facts that are accepted by all critical scholars. Some skeptics will even concede 20 or more. But from these 12 facts Dr. Habermas believes you only need four of them to establish a strong historical basis for saying Jesus lived, died on the cross, and rose again from the dead. Listen as he explains why.

Habermas: Now, we just got done listing four facts which I think are going to be admitted by the vast majority of critical scholars, folks in the middle and on the left hand side of the scale. We might add a couple of others in here: the Resurrection is the center of early Christian preaching. What do you do with a fellow like James, the brother of Jesus–a skeptic who comes to Christ? The fact that the Resurrection of Christ was proclaimed very early, what do you do with these four facts?

Now, here’s my point. Some critics are going to give you a longer list. Some of them…some skeptics might give you 20. And I said, “I don’t need 20. I only need 12.” And for those who think, “Can you do it with any less than 12?” I’m saying, “I’ve got four, five, six, seven–somewhere right in there.” And it’s an arbitrary number. Why? Because nobody, virtually nobody gives you only those facts. But I’m saying I’m arbitrarily reducing the list to 12, and then to four, five, six. And here’s my contention. With these data and the data that modify these facts that are admitted by all, we have enough of a basis to say that Jesus died and that He was raised again from the dead. You can sort of take home the whole pie with just these facts.

Read Part 2

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