The Resurrection (1/5): How Should We Assess Its Claims?

Of all the curious narratives which define the contours of culture and articulate the most penetrating truths about human nature, the most…

The Resurrection (1/5): How Should We Assess Its Claims?

Of all the curious narratives which define the contours of culture and articulate the most penetrating truths about human nature, the most influential are those set out in the Judaeo-Christian inheritance — the Bible.

Modern culture is steeped in Christian ideas

Despite owing much of its eminence to the claims and implications of this text, the secularised West now substantially rejects the historical and religious claim that God has revealed himself decisively in Jesus.

While a lingering memory of the ‘great moral teacher’ echoes within the corridors of our collective subconscious, most people today have very little interest in reckoning with the man who called himself the Son of God.

The literary scholar and theologian C. S. Lewis identified this sentiment in his 1952 title Mere Christianity, in which he famously set out his objection to the neutralising of Jesus’ core claims in considering him merely a great moral teacher.

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. […] Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Let’s be clear here: you can’t sit on the fence when it comes to Jesus.

So where can we find clarity? Where might we go looking to explore the signs which point to Jesus’ true identity? What kind of evidence is befitting such a radical and lofty self-proclamation that Jesus participates in the essential identity of God himself?

Well — according to scripture — actions speak louder than words. Here’s the New Testament’s answer to the question of evidence:

“He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical claims of being a very person of God, embodied in the humility of the human frame. On this basis, if indeed it is true, the resurrection of Jesus is without a doubt the central event in all of history.

However, over the centuries after this unique event, the resurrection hypothesis has naturally faced robust and articulate attack from within the realms of academic debate and popular discourse.

If you will give me the time, over this series of blog posts, I’d like to explore the evidence that makes so many people around the world — myself included — convinced that Jesus, once dead, is now alive, and that he can be trusted utterly with our lives.

Setting the Scene

Christianity is a religion which has emerged from the articulated testimony of historical events handed down in the written word. By implication, it can be investigated for its validity, by means of established methods of historical enquiry.

2nd century fragment of biblical text found in Egypt

This is how I set out to understand its claims and their validity: by considering the sources (for the purposes of this enquiry) not to be the inspired Word of God, but merely a collection of ancient manuscripts handed down from the first century AD. Their authority will only be that which they inherit from their broadly-accepted level of historical credibility.

Through examining these sources I came to be convinced (being equipped with the open-mindedness that there may be a creative mind behind the universe, capable of feeding — one might say, supernatural — events into it) that the events surrounding the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus, are best explained by the conclusion they themselves reach: that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Whether by virtue of a failure to engage at all with these important questions or in receiving the prevailing popular — though misguided — sentiments, most people stumble into a default opinion of the New Testament books which would denounce them as fiction. A collection of pseudo-random, contradictory myths, authored and synthesised on the basis of some agglomeration of hearsay, malicious tact and wishful thinking.

It is a perspective which, when put on trial against the eye-witness manuscripts, is shown to be childish in its degree of historical rigour.

“How can anyone come back to life having been dead for three days”, one casual onlooker cries from the balcony of the enlightened court-room, “it’s completely unheard of and scientifically unworkable”. Such a sentiment soaked in over-simplicity could only emerge in the vein attempt to attain intellectual clarity without putting in the hours.

This ‘logical’ philosophy, which attempts to remove the Christian conclusion as a possibility from the outset, was most enduringly put forward by the highly respected 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who put it this way:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
David Hume (1711–1776)

In an essay in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argued that our concrete ‘background evidence’ of the laws of nature, should in all circumstances override the ‘foreground claims’ of supernatural and scientifically impossible so-called ‘miracles’.

His argument was put forward specifically in respect of the resurrection by the German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, who argued that, as dead men don’t rise, Jesus couldn’t have risen. According to Troeltsch, in order to accept that an event took place in the past, we must first be persuaded that such an event is still observed in the present.

Immediately, this idea appears to make a lot of sense. You’re unlikely to believe someone, who tells you that they saw a yellow elephant with pink stripes, when we know they consistently come in grey.

Nonetheless, there are a number of problems with Troeltsch’s argument. Human observation, and the articulation of natural laws, are merely descriptions of what normally happens. They are generalised patterns which are consistent with a finite set of observations about how the world has been seen to operate. By implication, it cannot be inferred therefore that such laws are entire in the scope of their applicability or, for that matter, that the mind who created the universe to operate according to such laws would not be at liberty to interact with them on the basis of supernatural law.

To present it another way, it could be stated that “Since I have never heard of a resurrection, I am — as yet — lead to expect that they do not occur”. However, it would exceed the remit of the authority of the scientific method to make the additional assertion that “Since I have never seen one, I know that they cannot take place”.

Now, at this stage, I accept that I have not presented any positive reasons for belief in the resurrection of Jesus. However, I find that when seeking after truth, it is common to spend far too much time stumbling around in the substance of debate, without every really clarifying exactly what is being sought after (and what the criteria for belief would be).

So here’s the question we’re trying to answer: Can we identify sufficient reason to accept belief that, despite them not occurring naturally, on this particular occasion Jesus was raised supernaturally from the dead?

The question which naturally emerges from that is quite a legitimate one, namely: What would constitute sufficient reason to accept such a bold assertion?

Knowing how to decide is often as important as actually deciding

In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. Behan McCullagh lists six criteria frequently used by historians to test the credibility of historical events. While there are many ways in which one might assess such questions, I have found these criteria to be the most resilient, appropriate and complete for the our present purpose.

According to McCullers, the credibility of a historical event can be assessed on the basis of:

1) Its explanatory scope

2) Its explanatory power

3) Its plausibility based on the facts

4) Its not being ad hoc or contrived

5) Its being in accord with accepted beliefs

6) It far outstripping any other theories in meeting conditions 1–5

I will wait until my final post in this series before sharing a concise answer on each of these criteria, in terms of how they relate to the question of the resurrection.

However, I hope that as we make our journey through the evidence, that you will find some of these criteria being padded out along the way.

Whether you would consider yourself to follow Jesus or not, I hope and pray that you will find this journey interesting and helpful as you grow in clarity of thought on this most essential of topics.

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Thank you!