The Resurrection of Jesus

I recently finished Mike Licona’s latest (and quite voluminous) book “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach”

Based on this work, I’m going to attempt to write some specific things that have informed my understanding of the resurrection of Jesus.

I am basically a skeptical person by nature, I second-guess just about everything, that’s why I really enjoyed this book, Mike Licona is the same way. I remember going through a season in my life of searching and asking the question “do I really believe in Jesus” and my answer was a resounding “yes” at the end of about 9 months. If I had this book, I could have said “yes” much sooner.

Can we really “prove” that Christianity is true? No, we cannot. However, “proofs, evidence, and certainty” are not mutually exclusive from “faith.”

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

-Matt 11:3-5

John the Baptist was in prison and he had heard certain things about his cousin Jesus. He sent word and was seeking evidence. Jesus didn’t excoriate him, He simply gave what He was looking for “proofs.”

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:24-29

Thomas was a natural skeptic, like me and Mike Licona. Again, when Thomas takes the stand that he needed evidence, Jesus didn’t indicate any sin on Thomas’ part, far from it, He offered Thomas the opportunity for investigation. The interesting thing with Thomas is, as with most of us, he did not need the degree of evidence that he states. He said he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ side to believe, but when faced with the genuine article, he believed.

It is the same with us. Many times people will invent ridiculous challenges for Christianity in order for them to believe. “Well I won’t believe in God unless…” What I have found is that we usually throw out criteria that would preclude us from believing in anything. It is not fair to hold the claims of Christianity to an inordinately higher standard than other historical events/figures.

If you are agnostic (or even an atheist), would the “bar” that you ask Jesus to jump over also impede other historical figures whom you believe in? Did you know there’s more historical evidence for Jesus than Julius Caesar? Caesar is only mentioned in a funeral inscription and then only by sources hundreds of years after his death. Where as, there are multiple sources for Jesus’ life, even outside of the Gospels.

Are you a believer, but you are always tittering between belief and unbelief? I would highly recommend getting this book. Even if you can’t make it through all 700+ pages (I have it on kindle, so I don’t know for sure), it is an excellent reference work to have on the shelf.

Though the resurrection of Jesus cannot be “proven” (at least, not until Jesus comes back) we can look for certain criteria to give us the best explanation of the facts.

Historically speaking, we want to look for sources which are:

  • Eyewitnesses
  • Very close to the events themselves (“early”)
  • Multiple and independant (not just one person and seem to go to the source)
  • Unsympathetic (they don’t care if it’s not true, or might even prefer it)
  • Embarrassing (the truth presented actually causes problems)

The goal is to gather all the facts and then make hypotheses. Then compare them all to find what best fits. This is the scientific method, and science and faith are not mutually exclusive.

There is no such thing as true “absolute certainty” even in the hard sciences. A good friend of mine, Airforce Rocket Scientist turned PhD in Philosophy of Religion, once told me that even in launching missiles, though they would calculate where they would land, they would only speak of the degree of “confidence” they had. Obviously if you can physically observe something, then there is “absolute certainty” as Thomas had, but this is not what we’re talking about.

In the absence of our ability to observe, we should not simply state then “because I cannot see it, it must not be true.” Was George Washington the first President of the USA? How do we know? Haven’t you read the stories about him? This giant of a man, often shot at astride his huge white horse, clothes riddled with bullets on multiple occasions, but they never touched him. They sound pretty mythical to me… Perhaps he never existed. Or, perhaps our idea of “reasonable” is set too high.

We should not ask God to jump through hoops. We deal with probability all the time for very important things. Will this food I eat make me sick because it is infected with something, has the consumer safety commission really tested this product enough, will my plane crash or will I get hit by a semi truck? Yet we still eat, use products, and travel. Probability, we stake our lives on it every single day, wise people choose probabilities.

Our faith, the Christian faith, is a reasonable one, based on evidences. Licona takes a “historiographical approach” to the resurrection of Jesus. This speaks to not only a study of the past, but matters pertaining to the philosophy of history. In other words: how do we know the past, and to what degree can we know the past. It places the resurrection within a very high standard, yet still a reasonable one, for certainty. that is, what is most likely.

What about the hypothesis that Jesus really was raised from the dead:

  • Does it account for all the known facts?
  • Are the facts forced together, or do they naturally fit?
  • Is there too much ambiguity or a great degree of improvisation?
  • Does it accord with other widely accepted facts?

This is the kind of hard historical data that Licona deals with. This is not your “feel good warm fuzzy” Max Lucado book, but I found it a very good read. In fact, though I was already a Believer when I started the book, when I was finished, I was confident that Christianity is the most plausible and unified theory of reality. That may never make a greeting card at the LifeWay bookstore, but I am certainly comforted by it.

My doctoral work has to do with the relationship between immortality and resurrection in the Corinthian correspondence. Sounds thrilling, right? 😉 But this is why, to me, Licona’s book is so persuasive, he gets to the core issue.

Sure, many apologists use science and nature to try to point to a divine creator, and that’s all great, but does that move us closer to Jesus specifically? Maybe, but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse. For me, the central issue is Jesus, and the central “proof” for Jesus as God is the resurrection from the dead.

…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

-1Cor 15:17-19

I have good company when I view Jesus’ resurrection as the central evidence of the divinity of Christ, the Apostle Paul agrees with me. And the next verse sums up the confidence and the assurance that a work like Licona’s can bring: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Knowing that there is very strong historical data which supports this foundational event of Christianity will strengthen your faith, or perhaps even help you to take that first step of faith.

Every worldview is a step of faith. There is no perspective on life that is 100% observable and provable in a laboratory. No question that I am biased, I want Christianity to be true, I’ve staked my life on it, but that doesn’t make it untrue. None of us is unbiased, rather than pretending that we are, we need to recognize it and account for that fact. We need to pursue the truth and then follow it. If we don’t, we are only hurting ourselves, it will require deliberate and sustained effort, but I believe it’s worth it.

I will be posting more about what Licona presents, but I’d highly recommend you getting it for yourself. He does a great job at interacting with classical and specific skeptical claims about Christianity and the resurrection in particular. It has strengthened my faith even more.

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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