The Resurrection as Historical Fact?
“I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned.”
— Peter Hitchens, one of Britain’s most famous journalists, award-winning columnists and former outspoken atheist (brother of famed atheist Christopher Hitchens) in The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, p. 75
- Historical: “Of or relating to the character of history; Based on or concerned with events in history.” (American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition)
- Fact: “Knowledge or information based on real occurrences; something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed; A real occurrence; an event… [in] Law The aspect of a case at law comprising events determined by evidence.” (American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition)
- Historical Fact: “[S]omething that happened and that historians attempt to ‘discover’ through verification procedures.”
- Proof: “Evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth.” “Law. The result or effect of evidence; the establishment or denial of a fact by evidence.” (Dictionary.com; American Heritage dictionary, fourth edition)
The Implications of the Resurrection as Historical Fact
- “…If it is true, then it is the supreme fact of history, and to fail to adjust one’s life to its implications means irreparable loss.” — The late J.N.D. Anderson, LL.D., one of the worlds experts in Islamic law, lecture on Islamic law at Cambridge University, Dean of the Department of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, Director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London “What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s resurrection?” – Ludwig Wittgenstein one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logical-Philosophical Treatise), one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century; Wittgenstein inspired two leading philosophical movements in the 1900s, including logical positivism.
No person in history is more influential than Jesus Christ and no event in any person’s life throughout human history is more vital than his resurrection – if it happened. If it happened, Peter Hitchens understands he is no longer among the company of the damned – and I pray that will soon be true for his brother as well.
The resurrection has intrigued the world for 2,000 years. “… [N]early every scholar in the world agrees that Jesus was executed by the Romans, it is what happened after he was removed from his cross that has been the subject of more than 3,400 academic books and articles written during the past thirty-five years.” Rationalistic secular skeptics, biblical critics, theologians, historians, believing Christians and virtually everyone who has carefully studied the subject freely concede that Christianity stands or falls on the biblically described physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – an event so rare it has never happened before or since. They also agree that the resurrection of Christ was/is an event open to investigation and disproof.
If it happened, then among all religions, Christianity alone is fully true; if it didn’t happen, Christianity is a fraud and false. The Bible is very clear on this point: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
How utterly surprising for many then, given the magnitude of what is at stake, that the resurrection stands as a fact of history. How startling this is, given the fact of a critical world throughout the last two millennia that does not believe in the resurrection – and given the fact of the world’s best skeptical and critical scholarship for 2,000 years – that the resurrection has never been finally done away with. To the contrary; by default and on the basis of historic verification, logical and legal reasoning, prophetic fulfillment, evidential and other proof it stands as a fact of history that cannot be done away with, and never will be.
For 2,000 years the world has given it its best shot and failed.
This is especially true given recent scientific advances in historical study, biblical scholarship, textual criticism, archaeology, human psychology and related fields that bear on the issue. If not, where is the new evidence finally disproving the resurrection as a fact of history?
If I had one million dollars to spare, here’s what I would do; I would place an ad in 100 newspapers: “The sum of one million dollars is offered to anyone, scholar or layman, who can historically disprove the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to be judged by a group of objective scholars, Christian and secular, from the fields of history, law, philosophy, logic and epistemology, biblical and textual studies, philosophy of science, mathematics, and theology.”
I couldn’t lose. Why? As Bishop of London Thomas Sherlock once pointed out, determining whether or not Jesus rose from the dead has no great evidential difficulty to it. It requires no greater ability than to distinguish between a dead man and a living man, something the disciples were clearly able to ascertain, and something that, as Sherlock also pointed out, every man living believes himself to be competent in, even skeptics.
Hardly any impartial biblical or critical scholar in the world doubts that Jesus died by crucifixion; not many doubt the empty tomb and most all agree the disciples were absolutely convinced they saw the risen Jesus. No logical explanation exists for the existence of Christianity apart from Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead and no alternate theory in 2,000 years has succeeded, even partially, in explaining the historical data. That’s pretty much the end of the story.
There are seven key points that prove the resurrection is an historical fact, which we will discuss in a moment. However, because it is a historical fact, its spiritual implications should be personally recognized – that Jesus Christ has atoned for human sin as he claimed, that he was and is the Son of God and Jewish Messiah, and that an absolutely free forgiveness of all sin (Colossians 2:13) and a free gift of being declared eternally righteous (Romans 4:25) and a free gift of eternal life Romans 6:23; 1 John 5:10-13) is available conditioned only upon personal faith in Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.
This is, literally, the best news the world has ever heard and the best news any person will ever hear. If no one would logically refuse a gift of a million dollars, how much less should anyone refuse something infinitely greater – a free gift of eternal reconciliation with God and eternal joy, delight, pleasure, ecstasy, excitement and adventure in Heaven forever? But again, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we are still in our sins. And that is not a nice place to be, should we find ourselves in the presence of a God who is infinitely holy and righteous.
The information below, in part, is based on the historic reliability of what is declared in the New Testament, now generally conceded, even by many critical scholars, as a reliable historical document. The manuscript evidence is far too early and overwhelming for any other rational conclusion. Besides the 27 historical New Testament documents, each of which teaches or implies Christ’s resurrection (over 5700 Greek manuscripts exist), there are 39 historical references outside the New Testament establishing 110 facts about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
As trial attorney Craig A. Parton, JD, points out of the Gospels, “… the primary source documents… withstand legal scrutiny at every turn.” As one of the leading intellectuals in the world, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery argues: “The conclusion is inescapable: if one compares the New Testament documents with universally accepted secular writings of antiquity, the New Testament is more than vindicated. Some years ago, when I debated philosophy professor Avrum Stroll of the University of British Columbia on this point, he responded: ‘All right. I’ll throw out my knowledge of the classical world.’ At which the chairman of the classics department cried: ‘Good Lord, Avrum, not that!'”
The seven key points are as follows. Incidentally, these items are often accepted or conceded even by critical scholars who have fairly informed themselves of the data:
1. Critical scholars accept so many facts surrounding the resurrection that it is illogical to deny it.
Dr. Gary Habermas might be considered the world’s leading authority on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, having studied the subject his entire life. His research indicates that even the vast majority of critical scholars accept at least a dozen facts surrounding the resurrection of Christ. Dr. Habermas concludes, after searching through over a thousand different scholarly sources on the resurrection 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… It’s not only that they are admitted by virtually all critical scholars, but they are also individually attested by other data.”
2. The conversion of skeptics to belief in Christ’s resurrection on the basis of evidence.
Skeptics don’t easily convert to something they are powerfully opposed to on rational emotional or other grounds. Yet since the first century, and in every century since, former secular scholarly and other skeptics and critics of Christianity have converted to belief in the resurrection on the basis of the evidence, or argued on behalf of Christianity. Even some Jewish scholars who do not believe in Jesus have accepted his physical resurrection – to be sure, no small testimony to its persuasiveness. A significant percentage of Christian scholars today were once nonbelievers and skeptics; they would not have remained Christians had the evidence for Christ’s resurrection not been sufficiently compelling.
And indeed, given an actual eternal Heaven or Hell as reality, the risk for skeptics is great if they are wrong. For example, James Dietz is an expert in passenger rail transportation, having worked for General Electric for 10 years designing propulsion and auxiliary control systems for rail vehicles and currently is a senior consultant on numerous rail vehicle projects for major cities throughout the US. In a technical paper he writes: “The severity of the consequences associated with Christianity is high. A probabilistic evaluation of just 25 biblical prophecies shows that Christianity is very likely to be true. Analyzing this data by using the same risk assessment approach that is used to assure that public transportation is safe, one is left with the conclusion that Christianity must be seriously investigated, and soon.”
3. The weight of legal apologetics.
“Legal apologetics” centers directly upon proving the factual reality of Jesus’ resurrection such that would be conclusive in a law court. Many legal scholars accept the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead on the basis of rigorous legal evaluation and other evidence. The number of experienced and/or leading lawyers historically and today who have carefully investigated the evidence surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ is impressive to say the least. Lawyers are the world’s experts at evaluating evidence both pro and con. One reason they are so attracted to the Christian faith is because of the evidence for it. Simon Greenleaf, one of the best lawyers in history is but one of hundreds of lawyers who have accepted the resurrection as a historic fact on the basis of the rules of legal and other evidence. Trial attorney Craig A. Parton is a partner with a major law firm in Santa Barbara and former Chair of the Litigation Section of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association. Citing a list of attorneys whose credentials and scholarship are impeccable, he concludes, “The list of those concluding that the evidence in support of the death and resurrection of Jesus would be admissible in any common law court in the world include Hugo Grotius, Matthew Hale, William Blackstone, Simon Greenleaf, Edmund Bennett, Jacques Ellul, Sir Norman Anderson, Lord Hailsham and John Warwick Montgomery.”
4. The acceptance of Christ’s resurrection on evidential grounds crosses academic disciplines.
The world’s knowledge is truly impressive. Most academic disciplines bring potential positives or negatives to the discussion of the resurrection. Nevertheless, scholars and researchers from most of the basic academic and other disciplines have accepted the historic fact of the resurrection on the basis of the evidence, including scientists, philosophers, and historians. For example, there are professional Christian societies in many academic disciplines. In other words, the resurrection stands cross examination in multiple disciplines.
5. In the world of 2,000 years ago, no one believed that a physical resurrection from the dead could occur.
As a result, it is historically impossible that Christianity could have begun apart from the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead. Thought through carefully and critically, the very fact of the Christian religion is proof of Jesus’ resurrection.
6. The resurrection is capable of disproof.
Christianity is testable and disprovable through the resurrection (as well as by other means). Disproving the resurrection of Christ immediately after the third day and beyond would have been easier than most people realize. As Craig A. Parton, JD observes, despite abundant opportunities, “The written record of contemporaneous refutation of the resurrection is profoundly and hauntingly silent.” Had there been any possibility of snuffing out the Christian movement it would have been achieved immediately – powerful motivations and easy opportunities guaranteed it. For example, just produce the body and the Christian religion never begins. Or, if the disciples actually stole the body (the first alternate theory proposed), just crack one of the disciples. This would have been easy because people don’t undergo extreme pain or torture (e.g., 40 lashes multiple times) for what they know is a lie. Indeed, within the hostile environment of the Jewish and Roman cultures, the Church grew so quickly and rapidly, based solely on the resurrection of Christ — and from an initial entirely Jewish group of 20-30,000 believers that by the fourth century the entire Roman Empire was officially Christian. That’s nothing short of a historical miracle if the resurrection never occurred.
7. The failure of every alternate theory strongly suggests no credible, logical substitute that deals adequately with the historical evidence will ever be found.
Every alternate theory proposed in 2,000 years has failed in explanatory power, despite their scholarship, real or presumed; further, they cumulatively refute each other. Much as skeptical historians might not wish to accept it, after 2,000 years of proposing every possible alternative theory, historians have only one adequate explanation of the existence of Christianity and that is Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead. In truth, “There are logically only two possible kinds of explanation or interpretation of the fact of the Resurrection: that given by the person raised, and that given by someone else. Surely, if only Jesus was raised, He is in a far better position (indeed, in the only position!) to interpret or explain it.”
I believe the above seven points are adequate to establish that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical fact.
However, two additional facts need mention. First, there are a whole series of questions that skeptics cannot rationally and historically answer. First, why are skeptics’ critiques of the resurrection consistently found wanting? How does a skeptic deny the credibility of the leading eyewitnesses to the resurrection since they have given every earmark of truthfulness and honesty, as their writings prove?
Second, two recent scholarly texts bear mention: NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) and Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach (2010). These books comprise over 1,500 pages of careful historical analysis. I would venture to grant that any fair-minded critic who examined just these two books would be impressed with the level of scholarship, whether it changed their view or not.
Are these all of the evidences for the resurrection? Certainly not. There are at least a dozen additional issues that could be discussed. But the single most important testimony is that of God himself. Jesus, “…through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32).
Indeed, “God… commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31, emphasis added).
In behalf of its truthfulness, biblical Christianity has in its favor historic, legal, literary, cultural, empirical, anthropological, prophetic, logical, mathematical, scientific, journalistic, literary, philosophical, cross-cultural, and other evidence which cumulatively is very persuasive.
As Dr. Montgomery concludes, Jesus’ “…message can be relied upon as evidentially established.” That means he should be listened to because no one else in human history ever raised themselves from the dead.
- “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
- “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach(2010), 93, citing noted historian Richard Evans; see n. 34.
- The Evidence for the Resurrection, Inter-Varsity, 1966 Page 4; available online at: https://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_resurrection_anderson.html.
- Cited in John Warwick Montgomery, Tractatus Logico-Theologicus, fourth edition 2009 p.9, citing Norman Malcolm, editor, Wittgenstein: a ReligiousPoint of View?, p. 17.
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach (2010), 611
- Gary Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, 1984.
- Craig A. Parton, Religion on Trial, 2008, 95.
- Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity” [An excerpt from Evidence for Faith Chapter 6, Part 2], Issues Etc. Article archive; Http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissart1.htm.
- John Ankerberg, Dillon Burroughs, Defending Your Faith (AMG publishers, 2007, 92-93.
- For a brief list of converted skeptics see John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Handbook of Biblical Evidences. For over 50 examples of skeptics who have argued on behalf of Christianity or converted to it see, W.R. Miller, Earl Albert Rowell, Philip Schaff, “Skeptics for the Christian Faith!” Classical Apologetics; http://www.classicapologetics.com/special/skepfor.htm.
- James Dietz, “Christianity For The Technically Inclined: Risk Assessment, Probability and Prophecy,” Global Journal of Classical Theology [April 16, 2004]; https://campus.phc.edu/journalfiles/dietz_risk_probability.pdf.
- Craig A. Parton, Religion on Trial, 2008, 78.
- See Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright’s impressive 700 page text, The Resurrection of the Son of God.
- Craig A. Parton, Religion on Trial, 2008, 76.
- Gary R Habermas, “Explaining Away Jesus Resurrection: The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories,” http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/crj_explainingaway/crj_explainingaway.htm#review).
- Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity” [An excerpt from Evidence for Faith Chapter 6, Part 2], Issues Etc. Article archive; http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissart1.htm.