There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
Divisions of historical knowledge are useful in keeping us from going insane but there is no divorce between “sacred history” and “secular history;” there is simply, history. Of course some historical events are more important than others. Plenty of people have crossed the English Channel, but not all of them landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 amidst the largest invasion force the world had ever seen.
In any historical investigation, data must precede interpretation. And in the case of Christianity, the data is remarkable. The historical evidence for the central events in the life of Jesus (and thus the Christian faith) are overwhelming, more so than any other event in the ancient world, not to mention all other world religions. History is a blessing, not a curse to Christianity.
Christianity is both historically veracious and verifiable; but it is also falsifiable. In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul rests the entire Christian faith on one inseparable series of historical events: the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If Christ is not raised from the dead – our preaching, teaching and faith are all in vain. Not to mention we’re still in our sins and worse yet, we’ve been found to be misrepresenting God.
The Christian must answer the question posed by St. Paul. What if Christ did not rise from the dead? If Jesus’ resurrection did not happen Christianity is meaningless. We’re better off being atheists; it’s easier.
But the skeptic must also answer the question in reverse: what if Christ did rise from the dead? What would that mean? That would mean Christ’s promises are fulfilled. His claims to be the Messiah and Savior of the world have been vindicated along with all he said and did. It would mean that Jesus not a liar or a lunatic, but Lord.
In the words of Tolkien, in the Jesus’ resurrection, history and legend have met. There are not two histories but one. Here are some solid facts to start building a case with the skeptic. Gary Habermas calls this the “minimal facts” approach or the core resurrection data, a series of points which even secular and critical scholars attest to. The approach is clear and practical. And although it’s far from exhaustive, it provides building blocks for a more complex argument.
The following list is from an essay entitled The Core Resurrection Data in Tough-Minded Christianity: Honoring the Legacy of John Warwick Montgomery.
1. Jesus died due to the process of Roman crucifixion.
Friday was not the Romans’ first crucifixion. The account of Jesus’ death from the four Gospels is also corroborated by medical science. A ground-breaking medical study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ is worth reading. The Biblical accounts are confirmed by numerous secular sources as well, namely, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, Mara Bar-Serapion and Thallus. Not to mention several early Christian witnesses outside the Biblical record: Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Barnabas, just to name a few.
2. Once a persecutor of Christians, Paul became a believer because of an experience that he believed was an appearance of the resurrected Jesus.
What makes Paul turn from being a Pharisee of Pharisees into a great missionary? Paul attributes his conversion and transformation to his encounter with the resurrected Lord (1 Corinthians 9 and 15; Acts 9, 22 and 26). The apostles also confirmed Paul’s experience and work in the Gospel (Galatians 2; Acts 15). Both non-Christian and Christian scholars agree that the epistles of Paul are among the earliest New Testament writings. Thus, he proves an excellent eyewitness being so close to the events in question.
3. The disciples had already experienced what they also thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
The four Gospels both record such events as the women at the tomb, the upper room appearances, the road to Emmaus, the 500 Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15, etc. In addition to the clear and concordant accounts of the Bible, there are extra-biblical reports from Josephus, Tacitus, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr among others.
4. The apostles’ proclamation of the resurrection dates from an exceptionally early time after Jesus’ death.
The epicenter of apostolic proclamation was Christ crucified and risen. Paul says he received what was handed down to him (1 Corinthians 15). So where did Paul get his information? Paul was converted, transformed and given a history lesson from Peter and James (Gal. 1). The fact that this is done early, in all likelihood within months of Jesus’ death, means that there was less time for conspiracy theories and legends to crop up and become popular. The closer the apostles’ proclamation was to the events in question the better. There’s also good reason to hold that nearly all the New Testament was written early, before 70 A.D.
5. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic, was converted after experiencing what he also thought was an actual appearance of the risen Jesus.
James’ doubt and conversion is well documented in the New Testament (John 7, Mark 3, Gal. 1, Acts 15). However, the main non-Christian reason for including this among the core resurrection data is simple: embarrassment. “In light of his high position of leadership in the Jerusalem church, it is exceptionally unlikely that these early church documents would charge James with disbelieving the Savior…unless it was true.” (Habermas, 398).
6. The disciples were utterly transformed by their conviction that they had seen the risen Jesus, even willing to die for this belief.
What made these disciples go from scared and hiding to resolute and preaching publicly? Sure, plenty of people die for things they believe are true but are, in fact, false. However, it is unlikely that they would be willing to die for something they knew to be false. “Here’s the key: the disciples alone were in the best positions to know whether they had really seen Jesus after his death. Their answer to that question was their passionate change, since, apart from the resurrection experiences, there would have been no transformations or martyrdoms.” (Habermas, 398).
Want more information? Check out the following resources:
- Michael Horton’s thorough citation of Biblical and extra-Biblical sources at the White Horse Inn.
- A helpful chronology of Holy Week and Resurrection appearances from Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller.
- Higher Things entire new issue is on apologetics.
- On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.