April 08, 2009

Did Easter happen?

APOLOGIABy Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, April 9, 2009)

Did Easter happen?
Chocolate bunnies aside (at least temporarily), ‘tis is the season to think about Easter.

Easter is (or used to be) the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The traditional Christian “gospel” or good news is that God (God the Son) came to Earth in the man Jesus; He took our punishment for sin onto Himself by suffering and dying on a cross; then God (God the Father) raised Jesus from the grave (tomb).

Jesus’ resurrection—that is, His return to life in the same body but somehow wonderfully renewed—is said to be, among other things, a glorious sign that, with the help of God (God the Holy Spirit), helps us believe—accept by faith—the good news.

The question naturally arises: Did Jesus actually resurrect?

In the little book Finding the Real Jesus: A Guide for Curious Christians and Skeptical Seekers (Zondervan 2008), former atheist Lee Strobel argues that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus really did resurrect.

Strobel first dismantles some popular claims that purport to cast doubt on the Jesus described by the New Testament (e.g., claims from the Qur’an that Jesus wasn’t killed, claims from the contemporary scholar Bart Ehrman that the New Testament can’t be trusted, claims from some other scholars and fiction writers that the so-called Gnostic gospels are more reliable than the New Testament).

Having ably swept away the skeptical confusion, Strobel then sets out a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection, a case that consists of (at least) five facts.

Fact 1: Jesus was killed by crucifixion.

Fact 2: Within days of Jesus’ death, Jesus’ disciples believed that He physically rose and appeared to them.

Fact 3: Paul, a former foe of the early church, claimed he saw the resurrected Jesus.

Fact 4: The skeptic James (Jesus’ half-brother) believed Jesus resurrected.

Fact 5: Jesus’ tomb was empty.

Strobel points out that the vast majority of New Testament scholars, whether believers in Jesus’ resurrection or not, concede the historicity of these facts.

Also, Strobel defends each of the above historical facts, emphasizing that the witnesses not only suffered immensely for the alleged truth of their belief but also knew, because they claimed to be eye witnesses, whether their belief was true or not.

Significantly, this makes them unlike the general religious person (or religious fanatic) who might suffer and die for his/her belief but doesn’t know first-hand whether his/her belief is true. Rather, the witnesses knew the truth of their resurrection claim, and they would give up physical comfort and suffer immensely to proclaim Jesus’ actual resurrection.

Strobel’s conclusion: the best explanation of the evidence is Jesus’ miraculous resurrection.

I think Strobel is right.

Because of what we know about dead bodies (e.g., irreversible cell death and decay), a resurrection, if it happened, would be best explained as supernaturally caused. In view of the general evidence suggesting God’s existence (as presented in previous Apologia columns), and in view of Jesus’ self-understanding as the God of the Bible, this means that Jesus’ actual resurrection shouldn’t be ruled out prior to historical investigation.

Also, the witnesses’ declarations concerning Jesus’ resurrection should be taken seriously. As New York Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed points out (in connection to a different case), “Declarations against interest are regarded as having a high degree of credibility because of the presumption that people do not make up lies in order to hurt themselves; they lie to help themselves.”

All of this counts in favour of taking the resurrection reports handed down to us via the historical facts as truthful. The result: Jesus’ miraculous—i.e. God-caused—resurrection is strongly suggested by, plus makes good sense of, the historical evidence.

Happy Easter.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear Apologia readers,

I have decided to turn off the comments section of my blog for a while. I need to make some time to focus on my research projects over the spring and summer, and I think that turning off the comments section will help me do this. I admit to having difficulty resisting the urge to reply to comments that I think need some philosphical clarification. But, I find, this distracts me from my work.

I think too that turning off the comments section will also ensure that opinions and arguments which befuddle rather than enlighten won’t cloud up what I write in my future Apologia columns. (I’m thinking here of the fellow “Bob”, whose impolite philosophical fog can be found at the very top of the thread of the comment section for my previous post, "DNA and Intelligent Design.")

I wish all of you a glorious spring and wonderful summer!


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

I have received advice (some solicited, some not) from several people (all of whom I respect), and I have become persuaded that having Apologia’s comments section open is a good idea. Comments are again welcome.

For the record, all of the advice I received was excellent, and I am deeply grateful. Here are some specific bits of the advice that I have found most persuasive:

1. Honesty in debate requires listening as well as speaking. (Thanks Pvblivs.)

2. Keeping the comments section open allows Apologia readers—and me—to hear dissent and useful criticism. (Thanks again Pvblivs.)

3. Allowing readers to freely express their ideas and contribute to a discussion, whether with questions or disagreement, is important. (Thanks Rob H.)

4. That the search for truth and wisdom should be open to discussion and critique is important. (Thanks again Rob H.)

5. An open comments section provides other people with an opportunity to dialogue, regardless of whether I respond or not. (Thanks Carmelo.)

6. “Resist the temptation to respond to every comment. Silence is not absence of an answer; it is simply silence. Reasonable people will understand that you have other things to tend to in your life.” (Thanks again Carmelo.)

7. Following closely on the heels of #6, the fact remains that if I don’t want to have a conversation, I don’t have to have one. Depending on my teaching, grading, writing, and research schedule, I have the freedom to post an article (which I am otherwise committed to writing for my local newspaper) and not worry about responding to all critics. (Thanks Christopher.)

Thanks again to all of you who kindly shared advice. All of you wrote much more, and I will keep what you wrote in mind.

Thanks, too, to readers for being patient with me as I try to strike a wise balance between living and blogging.

In closing, I should point out that my best advisor—i.e., my wife—is concerned that I will allow myself to get caught up in too many detailed arguments, when my life is already very full, if not too full, of such arguments. I think she is right—as usual. (Yes…I am hoping that she reads this.)

With best regards,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

The material below is from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I respect Billy Graham, and even before I was a Christian I liked him. I thought it would be appropriate to place his presentation of the “gospel”/good news here, given the topic (Easter) of the present Apologia column.

I became a follower of Jesus shortly after I turned 30. I think it was the best decision of my life. (The next best decision was marrying Carla.) Therefore, I encourage readers, whether believers in God or not, to prayerfully consider the good news printed below.

If you don’t believe that God exists, then “pray” by saying something like this: “God, I don’t think you exist, but in case you’re really out there, would you please help me find you? If you’re really out there, and if you’re really the all-good (etc.) God who became a man in Jesus, then I would like to live like you want me to live.”

Prayerfully yours,

From the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:How to Become a ChristianThe central theme of the Bible is God's love for you and for all people. This love was revealed when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world as a human being, lived a sinless life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. Because Christ died, your sins can be forgiven, and because He conquered death you can have eternal life. You can know for sure what will become of you after you die.

You have probably heard the story of God's love referred to as the "Gospel." The word Gospel simply means "Good News." The Gospel is the Good News that, because of what Christ has done, we can be forgiven and can live forever.

But this gift of forgiveness and eternal life cannot be yours unless you willingly accept it. God requires an individual response from you. The following verses from the Bible show God's part and yours in this process:

God's Love Is Revealed in the Bible"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." —John 3:16 (NIV)God loves you. He wants to bless your life and make it full and complete. And He wants to give you a life which will last forever, even after you experience physical death.

We Are Sinful"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." —Romans 3:23 (NIV)You may have heard someone say, "I'm only human—nobody's perfect." This Bible verse says the same thing: We are all sinners. We all do things that we know are wrong. And that's why we feel estranged from God—because God is holy and good, and we are not.

Sin Has a Penalty"For the wages of sin is death." —Romans 6:23 (NIV)Just as criminals must pay the penalty for their crimes, sinners must pay the penalty for their sins. If you continue to sin, you will pay the penalty of spiritual death: You will not only die physically; you will also be separated from our holy God for all eternity. The Bible teaches that those who choose to remain separated from God will spend eternity in a place called hell.

Christ Has Paid Our Penalty!"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." —Romans 5:8 (NIV)The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, has paid the penalty for all your sins. You may think you have to lead a good life and do good deeds before God will love you. But the Bible says that Christ loved you enough to die for you, even when you were rebelling against Him.

Salvation Is a Free Gift"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast." —Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)The word grace means "undeserved favor." It means God is offering you something you could never provide for yourself: forgiveness of sins and eternal life, God's gift to you is free. You do not have to work for a gift. All you have to do is joyfully receive it, Believe with all your heart that Jesus Christ died for you!

Christ Is at Your Heart's Door"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." —Revelation 3:20 (NIV)Jesus Christ wants to have a personal relationship with you. Picture, if you will, Jesus Christ standing at the door of your heart (the door of your emotions, intellect and will). Invite Him in; He is waiting for you to receive Him into your heart and life.

You Must Receive Him"Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." —John 1:12 (NIV)When you receive Christ into your heart you become a child of God, and have the privilege of talking to Him in prayer at any time about anything. The Christian life is a personal relationship to God through Jesus Christ. And best of all, it is a relationship that will last for all eternity.

If you are making this commitment to Christ today, please let us know. We would like to send you Bible study materials to help you grow in your faith.http://www.billygraham.org/SH_HowtobecomeaChristian.asp

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Closing comment.

For some excellent work on the resurrection of Jesus, see Gary R. Habermas's website History, Philosophy, and Christian Apologetics: Specializing in Resurrection-of-Jesus Research. Of course, also important is N. T. Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God. A nice overview of N. T. Wright's argument for Jesus' resurrection can be found in Appendix B of (former atheist) Antony Flew's book There is a God: How the world's most notorious athesit changed his mind.

With best regards,