April 17, 2014

Easter and historical investigation

"The disciples Peter and John came running to the tomb
on the morning of the resurrection" by Eugene Burnand (1898)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 17, 2014 

Easter and historical investigation 

For many, Easter is the celebration of Jesus' bodily, physical resurrection after His death by crucifixion. Jesus' resurrection indicates that we should take Jesus seriously as Lord—God in human flesh. 

Of course, Jesus’ resurrection is a miracle. It’s an event that goes against our expectations of nature's usual course, and it’s caused by God. 

Some object that because a miracle has to do with God, a miracle is beyond historical investigation. 

Typically, Christians accept Jesus’ resurrection via faith, which is legitimate, because this is a work of the Holy Spirit. 

But in a world of competing religious claims (and competing spirits) is it possible to investigate an alleged miracle such as Jesus' resurrection historically (to arbitrate between competing spirits)? 

I think the answer is Yes. 

Note: In much of what follows I am indebted to contemporary philosopher Francis Beckwith (especially his article "History and Miracles" in the book In Defense of Miracles). 

If God were to exist and raise Jesus from the dead within physical space and time, then that miraculous event would have a physical dimension that could be accessed as historical evidence without first applying a theological interpretation to that evidence. 

Think about some of the phenomena surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection, phenomena that can be—and have been—investigated historically apart from theological interpretation. 

Beckwith sets out the following: 

(1) “the claim by Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish carpenter, that he was the Son of God and that his resurrection from the dead would establish the truth of his claim." 

Beckwith interjects (in the lecture version of his article): "Why can't that be investigated? You have a historical person who said a number of things." 

(2) “[T]he crucifixion, death and entombment of Jesus (c. A.D. 33).” 

(3) “Jesus' tomb discovered to be empty a few days after his death.” 

(4) “[T]he claim by Jesus' followers that they saw their leader alive several days after the burial." 

It turns out that the above phenomena have been accepted by many if not most historians as historical facts. (For references see the works of Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig.) 

Okay, so we have the above facts. What about interpreting those facts theologically? Is the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead out of order? 

Answer: No. 

It turns out that naturalistic (non-God) explanations run amok in view of the facts. (See Strobel, Habermas, and Craig.) 

Plus it turns out that contextual considerations make the theological interpretation plausible. 

The very facts themselves call out for a theological explanation. A resurrection smacks of supernatural causation, especially in view of the resurrectee’s divine claims. 

Moreover, and more broadly, there are good independent reasons—a cumulative case argument—for thinking that God exists. 

The Big Bang points to a beginning of the universe. Because it's reasonable to think that whatever begins to exist has a cause, it's reasonable to think that the universe's beginning—i.e., the beginning of space, time, and matter/energy—has a cause. This cause is powerful and universe transcendent: supernatural. 

Also, the fine-tuning for life of the universe's initial conditions points to the universe’s cause being a super-intelligent cause, as do the molecular machines of the living cell and its DNA code/ language. 

Also, the very concept of a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection implies/ predicts the above findings of contemporary science, thereby adding further plausibility to the theological interpretation. (For more on this, see my PhD dissertation "Miracle reports, moral philosophy, and contemporary science".) 

Now couple the above reasoning with the work of the Holy Spirit in one's heart. 

Therefore, historical investigation doesn't preclude knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus—it confirms the truth of Jesus' miraculous resurrection. 

Jesus is risen. Jesus is Lord. Happy Easter! 

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

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