Doctrine of Christ (Part 35): The Work of Christ (28) - Resurrection Theories

November 11, 2017     Time: 26:46

Historical Investigation of the Resurrection

In our lesson on the resurrection of Jesus we have surveyed the biblical data concerning Jesus' resurrection, and we have also looked at the history of thought concerning the event of Jesus' resurrection. Now we come to some assessment of which view of the resurrection is the correct view. We will want to talk here about both the fact of the resurrection as well as the meaning of the resurrection. The earliest Christians thought that the meaning of the resurrection was bound up with the facticity of the resurrection. Paul said, If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. But as we saw many modern theologians think that the resurrection can still be a meaningful religious concept even if it did not occur historically. So we want to look at not only the fact of the resurrection but the meaning of the resurrection.

When we talk about the fact of the resurrection of Jesus there are, I think, at least two ways to come to a knowledge of the truth of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. We might call these the existential way and the historical way. The existential way of coming to know the truth of the resurrection is through having a personal experience of the risen Lord oneself. When you think about it this is the way in which the vast, vast majority of Christians down through history have come to believe in Jesus' resurrection. The vast majority of Christians have never had the education or the library resources or the leisure time to conduct a historical investigation of the evidence for the resurrection. And yet they’ve had a vibrant and living confidence in the truth of Jesus' resurrection. Why? Because they had had a personal encounter with the living Lord himself and so know that he is risen from the dead. This type of existential knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus would be a properly basic grasp of the truth of the resurrection. Remember when we talked about natural theology we saw that in addition to arguments for God's existence that belief in God can also be a properly basic belief not grounded on argument. It can be in the foundations of one's system of beliefs grounded in the witness of the Holy Spirit – one's experience of God himself. Similarly I would suggest that belief in the resurrection of Jesus can be a properly basic belief grounded in an encounter with the living Lord himself.

That being said, it nevertheless is true that the resurrection of Jesus is purportedly an event that took place at a certain time in history and at a certain place in the world and therefore is in principle open to historical investigation as to what really happened at that time and place. So we will want to examine what is the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. This avenue of approach to the knowledge of the resurrection can be called the evidential avenue. The first was the existential avenue; this now would be the evidential avenue.

In approaching the resurrection of Jesus historically one doesn't come to this subject in a vacuum. Let me state very clearly two presuppositions that I make in approaching this issue.

First, I am presupposing the existence of God. This is demonstrated, I think, by the arguments of natural theology such as the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and so forth. We studied those arguments already in this class, and I am assuming then that those arguments make it plausible to believe that God exists.[1] This presupposition represents the classical approach to the resurrection that is taken by great Christian thinkers historically, people like Hugo Grotius, Samuel Clark, William Paley, as well as contemporary scholars like Stephen Davis and Richard Swinburne, and it is the approach that I have adopted in my published work such as Reasonable Faith.

I appreciate that anybody who is not a theist will not share this presupposition. Atheists and agnostics will not have this presupposition, neither will Buddhists and most Hindus. Nevertheless in the case of those persons what one needs to do is retrace one's step and go back to the arguments again for the existence of God and attempt to make a case for God's existence. But having this presupposition or not is going to make a huge difference in how you evaluate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and the competing explanations of the facts.

The second presupposition that I make is that our background knowledge includes a good deal of information about the historical Jesus. I am including here things such as the outline of his life, his teaching, his radical personal claims, and his death by crucifixion. In presupposing these facts I stand squarely within the mainstream of New Testament scholarship with regard to the historical Jesus. These are not conservative presuppositions. These are the conclusions shared by the wide majority of historical Jesus scholars. Again, I appreciate that Muslims, for example, would not share this presupposition. Most Muslims believe that Jesus was just an Islamic prophet who proclaimed a simple message of monotheism and that he was not in fact crucified. But this is a position which is so extreme that to call it marginal would be kind. This doesn't even appear on the radar screen of historical Jesus scholarship today. So I think I am also very safely situated with respect to this second presupposition.

In connection with this I should also make clear that I am presupposing two common assumptions of New Testament historical Jesus scholarship. First of all, what is called Markan priority; that is to say, I am presupposing that Mark's Gospel is the earliest of the four Gospels. Secondly, I am presupposing that the Gospel of John is independent of the Synoptics (that is to say, of Matthew, Mark, and Luke). While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are interrelated (Matthew and Luke seem to know Mark and use Mark in writing their own Gospel), it is generally agreed that John's Gospel is independent of those other three. So I am presupposing that as well. As I say, these are common assumptions held by the majority of New Testament scholars today.

There will be two steps in any historical argument for Jesus' resurrection even if these aren't always clearly delineated. The first step will be to establish the facts which will serve as historical evidence that requires explanation. So the first step is to establish the facts which will then serve as the evidence that one is seeking to explain. The second step is to argue that the hypothesis of Jesus' resurrection is the best or most probable explanation of those facts. So step two is to argue that the hypothesis of Jesus' resurrection is the best or most probable explanation of those facts.

Step one will involve an investigation of the historicity of such Gospel events as Jesus' burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances, and the very origin of the disciples' belief in his resurrection. Then, in step two, one will assess the comparative theories that have been offered as explanations of these facts such as the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the subjective vision theory, and so forth.[2]

With this two-step procedure in mind, I want to consider the objection of one of the most important skeptics concerning a historical approach to the resurrection of Jesus today, and this is Bart Ehrman who is one of the most popular religious authors on the contemporary scene. Ehrman does not so much dispute the facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus or offer rival hypotheses for explaining them as he simply rules any historical investigation of the resurrection out of court to begin with. His claim is that there can be in principle no historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and so our whole project in Ehrman's view is simply misconceived. Why does he think that? Well, he says historians have no access to what happens in the supernatural realm. They only have access to what happens in the natural world. Therefore a supernatural act or event is by its very nature outside the province of the historian. The historian as a historian cannot tell us whether God is the cause of some event. At the very best he can tell us whether certain events occurred and whether people believed that those events were miracles, but he cannot adjudicate that claim. He cannot tell us that the event really was a miracle caused by God.

With respect to the resurrection Ehrman says,

Historians . . . have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.[3]

But the truth or the falsity of that belief, he says, is not within the purview of the historian.

Once we differentiate, as we have, between the two steps or stages in a historical argument for the resurrection then I think it becomes very apparent that Ehrman's objection (even if you concede it) at most strikes against step two of the argument. The resurrection of Jesus is indeed a supernatural or miraculous explanation of the evidence. But the evidence established in step one of the argument is not itself supernatural or miraculous. None of the relevant facts that make up the evidence to be explained is in any way supernatural or inaccessible to the historian. For example, take the fact that Jesus' tomb was found empty on Sunday morning after the crucifixion by a group of his women followers. There is nothing miraculous about the discovery of an empty grave. To give an analogy, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and interred in the tomb in Springfield, a plot was hatched by enemies of Lincoln to steal his body from the tomb in Springfield. The Civil War historian will obviously want to know whether that plot was successful or not, or was it foiled? Was Lincoln's body missing from the tomb in Springfield? Or again, take the postmortem appearances of Jesus, a Civil War historian will want to know if Lincoln's closest associates like Secretary of War Stanton or Vice President Johnson experienced visions of Lincoln alive after his death.[4] Those are questions which any historian can investigate. And it is the same with the facts relevant to the resurrection hypothesis. So even if Ehrman were correct that the historian, because of some methodological constraint on him as a historian, cannot infer the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of the evidence he can still investigate the events which constitute the evidence which the resurrection hypothesis seeks to explain.

Indeed it is very interesting that Ehrman himself, after expressing initial skepticism about some of those facts, came to regard all of them as historically well-founded. In his Teaching Company lectures on the historical Jesus, Ehrman says with respect to Jesus' burial and empty tomb,

. . . (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that that’s what happened. We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later.[5]

As for the postmortem appearances, Ehrman agrees with virtually all scholars in holding, “we can say with some confidence that some of his disciples claimed to have seen Jesus alive.”[6] We have already seen that Ehrman thinks that the historian can establish that shortly after Jesus's execution some of his followers came to believe that God had raised him from the dead. In fact, Ehrman even surmises that if Jesus had died and no one believed in his resurrection then no new religion would have emerged following his death. So Ehrman himself has no problem with historians carrying out a historical investigation of these facts concerning what happened to Jesus after his death.

Honesty in advertising requires me to say that after he delivered these Teaching Company lectures Ehrman began to walk back these concessions and to deny the historicity of the burial and the empty tomb and so forth but without refuting any of the arguments he gave in his lectures for why he thought they were historical. One cannot help but to suspect that he began to see perhaps where this evidence was leading and so began to backtrack. But in any case his own procedure illustrates that whatever your verdict on these events may be (yes or no, historical or not) at least they are open to the historical investigation of a modern inquirer.

In fact, if you know the literature on the resurrection of Jesus what you will notice is that many if not most defenders of the resurrection of Jesus today are really quite content to rest their case with just step one of the argument – namely, laying out the facts of what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion – and they simply leave the question of the best explanation of this evidence to be settled between the reader and God. After all not everything has to be proved by the historian, does it? So I would say that in books on the resurrection typically 90% of the book is devoted to step one of the argument establishing the facts to be explained. Take for example N. T. Wright's massive study The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is one of the most important contemporary books on the resurrection of Jesus – The Resurrection of the Son of God. In this book Wright spends the majority (almost the entirety) of his 800 pages to establishing the historicity of the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances of Jesus. He says virtually nothing about what is the best explanation of these facts.[7] When it comes to step two of the argument that the resurrection is the best explanation what he does is simply hands the ball off to Gary Habermas and says, Read Gary Habermas' work on these rival theories to the resurrection as to which of these is the most plausible. But Wright has almost nothing to say himself in defense of the resurrection hypothesis as an explanation for the empty tomb and postmortem appearances. He is content having firmly established those facts to simply invite the reader to consider whether or not a naturalistic worldview is really the best explanation for these facts and whether or not a supernatural explanation wouldn't make good sense.

So the establishment of step one alone in the argument would be a very major accomplishment with which the defender of the resurrection of Jesus might well rest content. But why must we stop there? Why think we cannot go on to step two and that step two is off-limits to the historian? Ehrman seems to suggest that what prevents the historian from inferring a supernatural cause is his lack of access to the supernatural realm. This lack of access prevents his justifiably inferring that some event has a supernatural cause. But it seems to me that this objection on the face of it is really fairly weak.

In the first place, the historian does not need to have direct access to the explanatory entities postulated by one's hypothesis. Here I would simply invite you to think of the analogy of modern physics. Theoretical physicists posit all sorts of explanatory entities to which they do not have direct access – strings, higher-dimensional membranes, and even parallel universes. And they postulate such entities as the best explanation for the evidence to which we do have direct access. This procedure is not unique to theoretical physics either. The historical sciences like paleontology, geology, and cosmology do exactly the same thing. For example, as odd as it may sound, dinosaurs, just like quarks, are theoretical entities which are postulated as the best explanation for the fossil evidence that we do have, but we have no direct access to such creatures. So it is simply not true that you need to have direct access to your explanatory entities in order for you to postulate them as the best explanation of the evidence.

Secondly, the historian doesn't have direct access, in fact, to any of the objects of his study. Indeed this is one of the most oft-cited problems of the objectivity of history. The past is gone and the things and the events of the past can be inferred only indirectly on the basis of present evidence. So the way the historian constructs his hypothesis of the past is by making inferences about entities to which he has no access directly on the basis of the present evidence. Inaccessibility thus doesn't distinguish natural from supernatural entities or explanations. It is common in historical study that you do not have direct access to the objects of your study.

Finally, the last point that I want to make – and this is really the bottom line and the most important – is that even if we concede that the professional historian, as a member of “The Guild”, must act under the constraint of methodological naturalism (that is to say, under the methodological constraint that you can only infer natural causes for natural events), the question remains: why should we be under any such constraint? Why can't I, as a philosopher or just a human being, judge that the best explanation of the facts is a miraculous explanation?[8] Indeed, why can't the historian in his off-hours, so to speak, make this inference? Wouldn't it be a tragedy if we were prevented from knowing the truth about reality simply because of a methodological constraint? That would seem insane. So apart from some good reason for thinking that inference to a supernatural explanation is somehow irrational, I don't see any reason why we, when we are not acting as professional historians, should be prohibited from making a supernatural inference and being constrained by some sort of mere methodological restriction.

That brings us to the end of our time. What we will do next time is begin to look at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus – that is to say, the evidence to be explained.[9]


[1]          5:02

[2]          10:17

[3]          Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 231.

[4]          15:08

[5]          Bart D. Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written

            Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].

[6]          Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, p. 200.

[7]          20:02

[8]          25:03

[9]          Total Running Time: 26:51 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)