The minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus was discussed in the previous article for last month. These facts that serve as the foundation for this argument are accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars, both Christians and skeptics alike. That is what makes this argument tremendously powerful when discussing the resurrection of Jesus. Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus as stated in the New Testament would not be enough to convince a skeptic who does not accept the word of the Bible to be authoritative on these matters. For a skeptic, they are looking for additional evidence to validate why the Bible should be authoritative and trustworthy. That is what this argument hopes to achieve. Without achieving this goal of validating the authority of the Bible along with presenting extra-Biblical facts, the argument would not carry any weight with the skeptic. Since these details were discussed in the last article, the goal of this article is to address the objections to this argument by skeptics.
As a refresher, I will present the five basic facts that make up the minimal facts argument below:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion
2. The disciples of Jesus were sincerely convinced that he rose from the dead and appeared to them
3. Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus), who was a persecutor of the Christians, suddenly changed his beliefs towards Christianity
4. James (brother of Jesus), who was a skeptic of the Christian faith, suddenly changed his beliefs towards Christianity
5. The Tomb of Jesus was found empty three days after the crucifixion of Jesus (Habermas and Licona 2004, 48-76)
Anytime there are matters of the supernatural at hand, there will undoubtedly be objections despite how much evidence you have in favor of a supernatural cause. This argument is not an exception to that rule. Of course, skepticism is always encouraged to a large degree. Without skepticism, all of us would believe the first thing we heard without question. We implement skepticism in our daily lives without even knowing we were being skeptical. However, imagine if we were militantly skeptical about everything we heard. We would believe nothing. In this case, particularly with atheists or adamant skeptics, they have painted themselves into the corner of materialism. To this person, anything of supernatural origin cannot be accepted within their realm of acceptable causes despite how much evidence there exists in favor of the divine.
These objections that will be discussed are largely being made because the skeptics believe there is a naturalistic hypothesis that can best account for all five facts. It is always recommended that one be initially skeptical of supernatural claims but to never rule out the possibility of the supernatural prematurely. In this case of the resurrection of Jesus, if someone has viewed all of the evidence and made a conscious decision to stick with a naturalistic explanation, they have more faith than the Christians due to the lack of evidence for a naturalistic cause.
If you happen to witness this topic being discussed online or in person, you will likely hear that Jesus or elements of Jesus are nothing more than a product of legend. Sometimes you might hear that Jesus was a product of legend and never existed or sometimes people may say that the resurrection of Jesus was a legend and he did historically exist. Either way, they are attaching the legendary objection to Jesus in some way. That is why it is important to discuss the objection of “legend” so that you may be prepared to discuss this objection in a conversation.
Simply because the Gospels and the Pauline writings were not written on the day the events occurred, some skeptics claim that somehow they are false. This is patently invalid. People automatically revert to the elementary school experiment where the entire class would line up against the wall and the teacher would tell the child at the beginning of the line a phrase and each student would whisper it to the person next to them. By the time the message was received at the end of the line, it did not closely resemble the original message. Often, this example is what skeptics think of when they talk about the length of time between the actual events and the first writings that we have of the New Testament regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Many times, people easily dismiss these writings on the basis of an elementary school experiment.
According the majority of New Testament scholars who have seriously studied the New Testament, the textual purity is accepted to be highly reliable. Meaning, the New Testament as we know it today is virtually the same as it was when the originals were written (Habermas and Licona 2004, 85). However, the question regarding the possibility of legend is still to contend with. The answer to this question is that it is very unlikely that the New Testament writings are the result of legendary embellishments.
The first reason for why this objection does not stand up against scrutiny is because the writings of the New Testament can be traced back to actual experiences of the original apostles (Habermas and Licona 2004, 85). For this objection to be valid, the early manuscripts would likely not contain anything related to the resurrection of Jesus. However, the early manuscripts do contain testimony that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day.
The second reason for why this objection does not stand up against scrutiny is because Paul and James came to Christ through personal experiences they had after Jesus had risen from the dead (Habermas and Licona 2004, 86). Paul was a persecutor of the early church and even murdered Christians to prevent the expansion of Christianity while James was a skeptic of the teachings of Jesus. These accounts are dated early and give us reasons for why such a dramatic conversion could occur among individuals that have no reason to convert. This type of conversion does not align with the idea of legendary embellishment because it is dated early and it is directly attested to by these affected individuals through their written works. The idea that these skeptical individuals would convert to Christianity without reason and then somehow claim they embellished their own story to make it sound miraculous is illogical.
The last reason why this objection does not stand up against scrutiny is because there is no evidence in favor of it (Habermas and Licona 2004, 86). Clearly, there are evidences of certain ancient documents having been affected by legendary embellishments but there is nothing to suggest that the New Testament literature has fallen victim to such embellishments. These types of conclusions must be taken on an individual basis and those looking to critically evaluate the New Testament for historical reliability cannot do so with the presupposition that this writing has been contaminated with legendary embellishments. These embellishments must be objectively identified through evidence rather than presupposition.
This is another popular internet objection that is often used among the untutored. For those that may not know much about the subject, it may sound like a plausible explanation. In a skeptic’s mind that maintains this position, they think, “2,000 plus years have gone by and there is supposedly other types of myths that parallel the story of Jesus, it could be possible that Jesus can fall into the same category of “myth” like other types of gods”. While an entire book can be written with the premise of refuting these types of mythological objections against Jesus, it is important to briefly skim the basic type of objection regarding mythology.
The main point that should be driven home is that skeptics are claiming that the resurrection of Jesus is parallel to the other stories of dying and rising gods which disqualifies the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus. In reality, regardless of whether or not there were stories of dying and rising gods in mythology, the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus should be treated on its own individual merits. Simply because there were stories of dying and rising gods does not prohibit the existence of a valid historical claim for Jesus’ resurrection. Hypothetically, if an individual was executed today and he miraculously resurrected, would we discard the possibility of a resurrection simply because of numerous dying and rising god stories in the past? Clearly not, but somehow many skeptics have enthusiastically accepted this line of reasoning when evaluating the merits of Jesus’ resurrection.
While this article is not dedicated to going through each mythological god and discussing why minor similarities does not influence the New Testament account of Jesus, it is more important to highlight the significant principle that needs to be taken into consideration when dealing with these types of objections. All of these fallacious claims of similarity are also filled with massive amounts of differences. To provide a couple examples, Justin Martyr who was writing in A.D. 150, wrote about the similarities some of the dying and rising gods had with the resurrection of Jesus. He discussed how Aesculapius was struck by lightning and ascended to heaven and how Hercules rose to heaven on a Pegasus. Other than their ascension into heaven, how are they similar? These types of similarities that are made with the hopes of discrediting the historical credibility of the resurrection almost appear like an act of desperation.
The Disciples Stole the Body
This objection is not so far removed from reality that is does not seem plausible like the two previously discussed. However, this objection still does not make sense of the facts upon further evaluation. This objection makes sense of only one of the five facts as stated in the minimal facts argument. This objection only accounts for the empty tomb.
If the disciples had stolen the body, they would then be expanding the ministry of Jesus in an area of the world that was ambitiously persecuting them during this time. Imagine you were one of the disciples and you knew that Jesus had not resurrected because you had a hand in the hoax, would you put yourself in a life threatening position in order to propagate your own lie? What incentive would there be to maintain the lie when you are standing face to face with a lion in the Coliseum in Rome? Naturally, liars make poor martyrs. There is no documented evidence of any disciple or apostle confessing that they had stolen the body from the tomb. Out of all the disciples, not a single one indicated that they stole the body based upon the evidence that is currently available.
Apparent Death Theory
Honestly, it is a wonder why this objection is still being considered as a naturalistic explanation. The movie, “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson accurately depicts the types of suffering Jesus endured during the crucifixion process. The claim that is being made with this objection is that Jesus survived the crucifixion process and that is how he appeared alive on the third day to his disciples. Prior to the actual crucifixion, there was a scourging process of the victim that was immensely brutal. The scourging of the victim was conducted with a short whip that had several braided leather tongs of varied lengths and had small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bone at the ends (Habermas and Licona 2004, 100). During the flogging process, the back, buttocks and legs were the areas of the body that were whipped. The purpose of the flogging was to significantly weaken the victim so that they did not put up much of a struggle throughout the remainder of the process (Habermas and Licona 2004, 100).
Throughout the rest of the crucifixion process, the wounds would cause the victim unbearable pain. Once the nails were driven into the wrists and feet of the cross, they would then fall victim to asphyxiation, which means that they would have problems breathing (Habermas and Licona 2004, 101). While on the cross, the victim attempts to take the weight off his nailed feet which places more weight on his nailed hands. By placing more weight on the nailed hands, breathing becomes more difficult. Trying to inhale and exhale was a balancing act because the victim is always shifting his weight from his nailed hands to his nailed feet. All the while, his severely wounded back is rubbing up against the wooden cross which causes increased pain (Habermas and Licona 2004, 101).
As we see in the Gospels in the New Testament, if the Romans wanted to speed the crucifixion process they would break the legs of the victim which would cause the victim to place all of the victim’s weight on his nailed hands. This significantly limits the breathing ability of the victim which will eventually cause them to suffocate. To be sentenced to death by crucifixion, there was no hope for survival. There is no recorded evidence of anyone going through the entire process of crucifixion and surviving.
The next reason why this objection fails is the rather obvious notion that if Jesus did survive, he would certainly not appear as though he divinely resurrected from the dead. He would appear as though he just barely survived a crucifixion. The first conclusion the disciples would have after seeing someone in the wrecked condition Jesus would have been in would be “this man needs medical attention immediately!” not “I cannot wait to have a resurrection body like that!”
Lastly, Paul and James are not accounted for in the apparent death theory. It does not explain how these two stark skeptics converted. Who appeared to them? What caused their conversion if Jesus barely lived through his execution? Not only is the hypothesis not physically plausible, but it fails to account for the accepted facts.
The objection of hallucinations among the disciples who Jesus appeared to along with Paul and James attempts to explain away the appearances through a form of cognitive dysfunction known as a hallucination. A hallucination is considered to be a false perception of something that is not there. For example, if I had been deprived of sleep or had suffered a traumatic event in my life, my body may respond with a hallucination.
In this case, given what we know about hallucinations, does the hallucination hypothesis explain all five facts? Hallucinations would not explain the empty tomb. Considering that the disciples, Paul, James, and groups of people had appearances of Jesus alive after his crucifixion, does the hallucination hypothesis explain these appearances best among these people?
The answer is no. To use an example, if a group of five hundred people were locked in a room and were forcibly deprived sleep, some people would inevitably hallucinate due to sleep deprivation. Imagine that fifty people of the five hundred experienced hallucinations. Would these fifty people who experienced hallucinations have identical hallucinations? The answer is no. The reason why is because hallucinations are experienced on an individual basis rather than a collective basis (Habermas and Licona 2004, 106). Simply because these individuals are within close proximity to one another does not mean that they will have the same hallucinations.
While the disciples may have been traumatized by the death of Jesus and could be potential candidates for grief hallucinations, what would explain the hallucinations of Paul and James who had no reason to be grieved? In fact, Paul would likely be happy because he was persecuting the Christians during this early time in Christianity. James was not close with Jesus and was a skeptic, which would not make him a good candidate for grief hallucinations.
Overall, hallucinations are not a plausible naturalistic explanation for the appearances to the disciples, James, Paul, and the groups of people. A hallucination is based on the experiences of an individual rather than a collective group. Particularly when viewing the appearances of Paul and James, we see that these candidates had no reason to hallucinate an appearance of Jesus when neither one of them wanted to see Christianity succeed. They were not grieving. They did not suffer an emotional loss. They had no hallucinatory symptoms based upon the evidence. This objection simply does not make sense of the evidence we currently have.
Delusional people believe something when it is known to be false. Skeptics accuse the disciples of wanting Jesus to be alive so bad that they became delusional and continued the ministry as though Jesus had resurrected. There are multiple reasons why a delusion does not account for the facts.
The strongest reason why the accusation of a delusion does not work is because Paul and James do not specifically fit the candidates for a person who would suffer from a delusion in this circumstance. Paul wanted the Christians dead. With Paul being persecutory of the Christian church, a delusion would not make sense of the facts. James was a skeptic and would certainly not live his life like Jesus had resurrected without having evidence that a resurrection had actually occurred. Both of these individuals were ultimately martyred for Jesus after having dedicated their lives to his service after seeing the appearance of Jesus alive. If the appearance of Jesus never happened, it is safe to say that they would not have changed their lifestyles. If such adamant skeptics could be drastically changed after having seen the appearance of Jesus, it would be reasonable to believe that the disciples rededicated their lives to Jesus after having seen the same appearance of Jesus.
Also, the hypothesis of the disciples, Paul, and James were delusional does not adequately explain the tomb being empty on the third day. While some may try to expand the hypothesis by saying that the disciples stole the body as a result of their delusion, the objection itself does not directly address the matter of the empty tomb so it is reasonable to conclude that the empty tomb is not a matter that is being addressed in this objection.
This is often a favored objection among the more sophisticated skeptics. These types of skeptics are placing faith in the idea that the New Testament writings were only trying to promote their own agenda and convince those to believe in their cause. Upon closer observation, this is certainly not the case. In fact, this is quite the opposite. When using this objection, there are a lot of fallacious presuppositions that are being implemented. While an entire book can be written on this topic alone, it is still important to understand the fundamentals of such an objection and where they fall short.
Given the accusation of biasness, it is first important to view the testimony of Paul and James. As stated before, they had no reason to be bias. In fact, being honest and truthful is contrary to what their original worldview was. Meaning, they did not original favor Christianity and stood in stark opposition of it before the appearances of Jesus. After the appearances, they were telling a completely different story about the reality of Christianity. This makes their testimony credible because it can be established that their position on Christianity was not highly susceptible for bias testimony.
Next, given that the New Testament documents are not being taken seriously on the basis on bias testimony, does that mean that all documents of ancient antiquity will be subject to the same type of historical evaluation? If assuming that every author is bias toward the matter he is writing about, should writings be completely discarded as having no historical truth value? For example, should Ann Frank’s diary be disregarded as having no historical value because she was writing as a Jew during WWII? This type of suggestion is completely counterintuitive when searching for the truth of the past. Ann Frank’s diary should be taken seriously because she experienced Nazi persecution personally and could explain what it was from a firsthand basis to be a Jew during this difficult time. Simply because someone is bias towards what they are writing about does not make their writing less historically valuable.
If someone is writing from a bias point of view, it does not automatically mean that their testimony will be inaccurate. For example, if I saw my closest friend commit a crime in my presence and law enforcement asked me to provide a statement of what I saw my closest friend do, I will write a very detailed description of the truth regardless of whether or not he was my friend or not. While this may not always be the case in all circumstances, the assumption that all bias writers are incapable of providing truthful claims is an unwise approach to understanding the New Testament texts.
Sometimes people try to discredit people’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus by telling the Christian that they only believe in the resurrection of Jesus because they were raised Christian. This type of fallacy is known as a genetic fallacy, which is when someone attacks your beliefs on the basis of how you came to hold them rather than the reasons for why you believe in something (Habermas and Licona 2004, 125). Along the same lines, ad hominem attacks are implemented in lieu of substantive arguments. The ad hominem fallacy is an attack against the person’s character rather than against the argument (Habermas and Licona 2004, 125). For example, an atheist might say, “Christians are ignorant for believing in the resurrection”. This type of ad hominem attack is focusing on his belief that you are uninformed for believing in the resurrection. Obviously, it has nothing to do with the argument.
After reviewing seven of the most basic and most frequent objections to the resurrection, it is still reasonable to place faith in the reality of the resurrection. The reality is that there is not a naturalistic explanation that can make sense out of all the facts better than the resurrection hypothesis. Despite of this fact, the conspiracy theories are never in short supply. For the dedicated skeptic, nothing is off limits when considering an alternative theory for the resurrection.
As stated in the introduction, this is an ideological commitment for those that disregard the facts that are acknowledged as truth by the majority of New Testament scholars. There are some people who still cannot commit to the idea that Jesus was a living person in first century Palestine. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, there are still people who cannot concede the fact that Jesus actually lived. The point that Christians have to appreciate is that sometimes evidence is meaningless when speaking with a dedicated skeptic. Sometimes developing a relationship with a skeptical person is the best way for them to let their guard down and speak openly about these sensitive matters.
Love our skeptical friends as much as possible and be open to speak with them about these topics. It is vital that we know the facts of the resurrection intimately because it is the foundation of our faith. Along with knowing the details of the resurrection story, we must also know why people object to it and how we can best answer their objections. This is what we are called to do as Christians. Let us honor our God by being prepared to help those that have trouble letting their guard down because they are not yet confident in the resurrection story. This is a personal endeavor that requires commitment and study however it is well worth the time spent getting to know our Lord.
Habermas, Gary R, and Michael R Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004.