What are some of the strongest objections to faith from Christianity’s toughest critics, and can we answer them? In this new series, Premier Christianity will be...
The Apologist: What proof is there?
Christian apologist Amy Orr-Ewing responds to some of the biggest objections to the resurrection.
Isn’t the story of the resurrection the result of uneducated people who were willing to believe?
The resurrection of Jesus was believed and communicated both by ‘educated’ and ‘non-educated’ people. I think this is important – some may sneer at the supposedly ‘uneducated’ Gospel writers Matthew and Mark whose accounts are based on the testimony of working people. But I would question whether fishermen are more given to flights of fancy than a doctor such as Luke or an educated academic such as Paul.
The more important issue here is the idea that people were ‘willing to believe’. There was no Jewish expectation of an individual resurrection at all at the time of Jesus – they generally believed there would be a corporate resurrection at the end of time, rather than the resurrection of one man.
The Gospel narratives reflect this reluctance to accept Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas, for example, initially refused to believe it had happened. Paul believed in spite of having every personal predisposition not to. There was a huge cost, both theologically and personally, to the disciples and other early Christians for believing in the resurrection.
In essence, don’t dismiss Jesus’ resurrection on the basis that people would have been willing to believe it, because they weren’t.
Why should we believe a story that wasn’t written down until long after the event?
We are not being asked to believe in something written a ‘long’ time after the events. Compared to other equivalent historical sources, the Gospels were written relatively shortly after the events they record.
At the time, there was a strong oral tradition and the stories could have been accurately preserved that way. However, recent scholarship which focuses on literary details within the Gospels themselves has demonstrated that they are in fact the product of eyewitness testimony – which was best historiographical practice at the time.
In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans), University of Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham writes: ‘Gospel traditions did not…circulate anonymously but in the name of the eye witnesses to whom they were due… So, in imagining how the traditions reached the Gospel writers, not oral tradition but eyewitness testimony should be our principal model’.
Predating even the Gospels, though, are the references to the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians. Paul, who claimed to be a witness of the risen Jesus, wrote about 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death. But it is now widely accepted that the creedal statement, which Paul quotes in chapter 15, could be confidently traced to within a few years of Jesus’ death. It says: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and was buried. He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and appeared to Peter and to the twelve.’ (See 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
So what does this mean for those who might otherwise be sceptical? German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was persuaded of the truth of the resurrection by two things: 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, and the fact that a movement based on the resurrection of a dead man would have been impossible in Jerusalem had there been a corpse in the tomb.
Should we be concerned about the difference in details between the four Gospel accounts?
No – we should expect eyewitness testimony to differ slightly. If each account were identical we would be highly suspicious of a centralising editorial hand at work. The differences in the Gospel accounts make sense of the historical events if you place them in a chronological sequence rather than reading them as different accounts of the same exact few moments.
Are we allowed to conclude a miracle from a set of historical facts?
This is interesting! Those who have an a priori commitment to the impossibility of the supernatural will say ‘no’, but that is itself a faith commitment – it is not based on ‘reason’ and as an assumption it should be challenged.
With regard to miracles, CS Lewis pointed out that if, on each of two nights, I put £10 into my bedside drawer the laws of arithmetic tell me that I now have a total of £20. If, however, on waking up I find only £5 in the drawer, I don’t conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken, but possibly the laws of England.
As John Lennox puts it: ‘The laws of nature describe to us the regularities on which the universe normally runs. God who created the universe with those laws is no more their prisoner than the thief is prisoner of the laws of arithmetic. Like my room, the universe is not a closed system, as the secularist maintains. God can, if he wills, do something special, like raise Jesus from the dead.’
Nevertheless, sceptics such as Bart Ehrman will point out that miracles and the historical method are at odds. Miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, and history is duty bound to deliver us the most probable explanations.
"GOD CAN, IF HE WILLS, DO SOMETHING SPECIAL, LIKE RAISE JESUS FROM THE DEAD"
If Ehrman is right, it would seem that historical studies could never support the validity of miracle claims such as the resurrection. But Ehrman makes the classic mistake of only taking into account the prior probability of a miracle event in general.
In order to calculate the probability of a specific miracle claim with mathematical integrity, other factors such as the evidence supporting the claimed event must also be taken into account.
What if we factor in the evidence for the existence of God, the Messianic claims Jesus made about himself, how his resurrection would act as the vindication of them, and a host of other details? As Richard Swinburne, philosophy professor at the University of Oxford, has demonstrated, on that basis the probability of this particular miracle becomes very strong.
It is intriguing to note that the approach of sceptics has shifted in recent times from an attempt to demonstrate that historical research has shown that Jesus was not raised from the dead, to the idea that the historical question ‘is probably unanswerable’. NT Wright writes: ‘No other explanations have been offered, in 2,000 years of sneering scepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed.’
I think it perfectly reasonable to deduce from the evidence that a miracle occurred in history and that Jesus was raised from the dead.
"And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."
"The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven."
"If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead."