Less Is More: A Case for the Resurrection

Alan's monthly letter for July 2013

Dear Friend,

Go ahead and skip church this Sunday. No need to give thanks for your next meal. You might as well throw this letter in the trash, too. Christianity is a meaningless religion and a waste of time…if…. If what? If the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact, your faith is a joke. Christianity stands or falls on whether Jesus of Nazareth walked out of His tomb the Sunday after His death.

These aren’t my words. This is not my reasoning. This is the message of Scripture. If I were to write an epistle for the Bible, however, I would never make the central claim of my religion falsifiable. I would never make it possible to prove it’s false. That’s what the apostle Paul does, though.

In 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he writes, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…. 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.”

Did you catch what he’s saying? If the resurrection didn’t happen, then Christianity is false and you are to be pitied since you’re spending your short life on earth serving a dead man.

This is why knowing the evidence for the resurrection is important. Traditionally, people have defended the resurrection by appealing to the Bible. Since the Bible is the word of God, they reason, and it says that Jesus rose from the grave, then Jesus must have indeed been resurrected.

There are many liabilities to this approach, though. It’s easy for skeptics to punch holes in this reasoning: The Bible is a human book, it’s full of contradictions, there are many errors, and the list goes on. Though these objections are answerable, you can get off track and waste time.

Some of the brightest Christian thinkers have developed a new, more powerful approach. It’s called the “minimal facts argument.” They ask, what historical facts can be discovered surrounding the resurrection? In determining those facts, they only consider data that meet two criteria. First, there must be strong evidence for them. Second, the data must be accepted by virtually all scholars on the subject, even the skeptical ones.

One of the advantages of the minimal facts argument is you don’t have to assume the Bible is the word of God. It can be regarded as merely an ancient volume of literature containing 27 separate books and letters. This makes the evidence more believable to skeptical audiences. Plus, it reduces the amount of data that needs to be accepted to a minimum (just five facts).

What facts, then, do virtually all New Testament scholars – even the skeptical, non-Christian ones – consider historically reliable?

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ tomb was empty after His burial.
  3. Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed He rose from the dead and appeared to them.
  4. Paul, the church persecutor, converted and began preaching about the risen Jesus.
  5. James, the skeptic, converted and began preaching about the risen Jesus.

Scholars have various reasons for accepting each of them. Once these historical facts are acknowledged, you are faced with a simple question: What is the best explanation for all the facts? This is a standard approach to any investigation.

Skeptics offer many naturalistic accounts. Some say the disciples stole the body, others say Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, and others think Jesus’ followers hallucinated His return. None of these explanations – or the others that are usually offered – makes sense of all the facts.

That’s why this approach is powerful. If skeptics’ ideas don’t explain what needs to be explained (the five minimal facts), then they can be rejected.

The biblical account, on the other hand, explains all the facts. That Jesus rose from the grave incorporates all the facts and has the greatest explanatory power.

Each time I go to Hume Lake Christian Camps this summer, I’ll be teaching high school students (and many staff) this effective defense. What could be more crucial to know than the historical fact that the Christian faith hinges on: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thanks for making this education possible for hundreds of students this summer.

With warm thanks,

Alan Shlemon

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Alan Shlemon