In their excellent book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Gary Habermas and Michael Licona offer a very readable and thoroughly researched argument for the publicly accessible, historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. My goal in this post is to summarize their main argument as simply as possible.
Their argument has two key components:
1. The minimal facts that are widely agreed upon by nonChristian scholars.
2. There are only so many plausible theories to explain these facts, but the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the most reasonable explanation.
As a starting point, Christians and non-Christians generally agree that many historical facts can be rationally known. These facts often change our lives in important ways: careful analysis of military history influences current military tactics, analysis of past economic policy is brought into op-ed pages to argue for or against current political choices, and so on.
Given an acceptance of history as a source of knowledge, there are five facts about the life of Jesus which the great majority of non-Christian scholars agree upon. They are:
a. That Jesus was crucified. (This fact is reported in all four gospels and the ancient authors Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and Mara bar Serapion).
b. That the original disciples believed they had seen an appearance of the risen Jesus. (This fact is verified by Paul, early church creeds and sermons, all four gospels, and Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and other early church fathers).
c. That James, the understandably skeptical brother of Jesus, believed he had seen an appearance of the risen Jesus. (His transition from unbelief to martyrdom is established through compiling data from the gospels, early creeds, Galatians, Acts, Josephus, and Eusebius).
d. That Paul, the persecutor of the early church, believed he had seen an appearance of the risen Jesus. (We have data for this from Paul himself, early oral tradition, Acts, Clement, Polycarp, and Eusebius).
e. That the tomb Jesus was buried in was later found empty.
It bears emphasizing: the five facts above are agreed upon by non-Christian scholars as being historically reliable.
In addition to this broad outline, they give three supporting reasons for believing the tomb was actually empty, as this point has been disputed the most among non-Christian scholars. Even so, a majority of non-Christian scholars believe the empty tomb to be a historically reliable fact. These three supporting reasons are:
a. Since the tomb was in Jerusalem, it would have been very difficult to preach “Jesus is risen!” in that city if the body was still rotting in the tomb.
b. The earliest contrary report we have to the disciples preaching that “Jesus is risen” is that “the disciples stole the body.” This counter-claim still implies the tomb has been found empty.
c. The gospels record women as the first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb. This is a remarkable and hugely embarrassing problem for the early church, as a woman’s testimony was widely considered to be so unreliable that it was inadmissible in a court of law. This confirms the historical reliability of the empty tomb, as it strongly decreases the possibility that the writers made the story up.
Once these facts are established, there are only five main scholarly theories to explain these five facts. They are:
a. Jesus bodily rose from the grave as the Risen Lord.
b. Jesus resuscitated. (Though crucified, he did not die, and recovered enough to get out of the tomb).
c. The disciples stole the body.
d. The disciples hallucinated.
e. It is all a church legend.
Here’s your assignment. Compare each of the five main theories to the five facts. Which theory explains all of them simply and elegantly? Which theories have the weakest explanatory power?
For further research on this most important topic, I recommend three books in particular: