Why do you believe in a literal Resurrection?
Mike: The historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection is quite good. Virtually all scholars who study the topic, whether atheist, agnostic, Jewish, or Christian, agree that shortly after Jesus’s death, a number of His disciples had experiences they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus to them. Most scholars agree that they had these experiences in individual and group settings. Virtually all scholars all agree that Paul, a persecutor of the Christians, also had an experience that he believed was the risen Jesus appearing to him. Now, the task of the historian is to weigh various hypotheses and see which best accounts for these alleged appearances. When this is done using strictly controlled historical method, the resurrection hypothesis does a far better job than competing hypotheses. Therefore, it tells us the resurrection of Jesus probably occurred.
In interactions with people of various faiths and non-faiths, what do you find the biggest objection to belief in the literal resurrection of Christ to be? Does the enlightenment play any role in the rejection of the resurrection?
Mike: There are many reasons given for why one does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. My suspicion is that one’s worldview is what keeps most from thinking Jesus rose from the dead. Most people of faith, and I’m including Christians among them, do not engage in serious critical thinking on the matter of whether the foundation of their religious beliefs is true. They end up being guided almost exclusively by their family, friends, and the society in which they live. Scholars, on the other hand, should think critically and often do. However, they have their biases as much as anyone else. And very often they allow those biases to guide their historical investigations more than they realize.
What is at stake in this conversation? What’s the big deal?
Mike: If Jesus rose from the dead and the Gospels provide us with at least a fairly accurate portrayal of Jesus and His teachings, then the eternal destiny of one’s soul may be at stake. That is what is most important. But Jesus’ resurrection also has cultural relevance. Followers of Jesus accept His teachings. And these are often in conflict with where Western culture wants to go. Jesus told his disciples that they should not be surprised when the world hates them, because it hated Him first because He exposed its evil deeds. I think this is why the more militant atheists have such an angst against Christians. It’s because followers of Jesus present a strong opposition to their political views.
Is it possible to be a Christian and not be sure about the resurrection?
Mike: Doubting is a normal thing for many of us. In Mere Christianity, C S Lewis wrote, “Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.” I think it was Gary Habermas who once told me about a conversation he had with Antony Flew when Flew was one of the most influential atheist philosophers in the world. He asked Flew if he ever doubted to which Flew answered that he doubted his atheism all the time. “Does God exist and, if so, what does He require of me” are the most important questions one can ask. So, I think it’s possible, even reasonable, for a Christian to entertain doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, since eternity could be as stake. I certainly have doubted and still do on occasion. But I’m very glad the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is as strong as it is and that it’s not a matter of believing something for which we have no evidence. In other words, Christians need not possess a blind faith when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, since there is good historical evidence supporting the occurrence of that event. I think there’s enough evidence to show that it very probably occurred. But even if one disagrees with that assessment, a fair-minded person should at least agree that the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection is of such a nature that Christians are rational to believe the event occurred.
Some attest that the resurrection can only be accepted by faith and not on historical grounds. What’s your response?
Mike: I have dealt with that position at length in chapter two of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). In a nutshell, if an event occurred in the past and we have sufficient data for concluding that event occurred, I see no reason why Jesus’s resurrection should be excluded, provided data sufficient for arriving at a conclusion exists. And my opinion is that it does. The tools of historians may not be capable of revealing that “God raised Jesus.” But, as with other historical events, a historian may conclude that an event occurred while not adjudicating on the cause of the event. For example, a historian can conclude that Carloman died while leaving a question mark pertaining to the cause of death (i.e., natural causes or his brother Charlemagne had him poisoned). In a similar manner, a historian can conclude that Jesus rose from the dead while leaving a question mark pertaining to the cause of the event, saying it was either an anomaly or a supernatural event.
Thank you, Dr. Licona, for your time!
Dr. Mike Licona (PhD, University of Pretoria), president of Risen Jesus, has been interviewed by Lee Strobel in his book In Defense of Jesus: Investigating Attacks on the Identity of Christ and appeared in Strobel’s video The Case for Christ. Most recently he has debated atheist Matt Dillahunty of “The Atheist Experience” on the topic of “Was Jesus Raised From the Dead?” (see here for video) and posts regularly on his Youtube channel.
He is the author of numerous books including Why Are There Differences in the Gospels: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Paul Meets Muhammad, co-author with Gary Habermas of the award-winning book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, and co-editor with William Dembski of Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science. Mike is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He has spoken on 100 university campuses and has appeared on dozens of radio and television programs.
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