April 14, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Resurrection Debate Time

Easter is coming. It must be time for secularists to emerge like cicadas, chirping that the resurrection of Christ never happened. Sure enough.

A new movie version of The Case for Christ about the life of Lee Strobel has premiered for the week of Passover and Easter. But evidence powerful enough to convince an atheist journalist of the case for Christ is not enough for Brent Landau, a religious studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin. For Easter week, he gets prime space on a ‘science’ news site to tell the world “What’s the evidence for a resurrection?” (Live Science). The outcome is predictable. Since Live Science loves Darwin, and since this academic professor at a secular university already ‘knows’ that miracles are impossible, it’s not surprising to learn that he finds ways to explain it away (in his words, “I hold that Strobel’s book and the movie adaptation have not proven the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection for several reasons”). But what would Landau accept as proof? Live Science, naturally, gives no occasion to Strobel to rebut this article, except through the opinion of Landau himself, who apparently emailed Strobel and found his response unsatisfying.

Christian scholars never back down from a good debate about the historical foundation for their beliefs; bring it on. But in rebutting Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, “one of the bestselling works of Christian apologetic [sic] … of all time,” Landau commits the unscholarly action he accuses in Lee Strobel: selective evidence.

Here in summary are Landau’s chief arguments for his claim that Strobel ‘has not proven the historicity” of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

  1. The number of New Testament manuscripts is irrelevant to Strobel’s proof.
  2. Just because a few early manuscripts mention a resurrection, that doesn’t mean it happened.
  3. The famous passage in I Corinthians 15:3-8, though he admits it was probably written in AD 52, only proves that some people believed Jesus had risen.
  4. Lots of people claim to see dead relatives alive after they died; some 13%, Landau claims. These have psychological and emotional explanations.
  5. The “500 people at one time” claim could refer to those at Pentecost, not to eyewitnesses.
  6. Large groups of people claim to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary or of UFOs.
  7. “Some scholars would question how early the empty tomb story is.”
  8. Even if the tomb was empty, the body could have been moved for other reasons.
  9. “Miracles are, by definition, extremely improbable events, and I see no reason to assume that one has taken place when other explanations are far more plausible.”

In that last point, Landau’s secular materialism becomes obvious. He essentially echoes David Hume’s old objection to miracles, reiterated by atheists ever since. It’s true that miracles are very rare (that’s why they are miracles), but the problem Landau avoids is his own preference for miracles. Everyone believes in the supernatural (e.g., the laws of logic), and everyone believes in miracles (e.g., the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness). To call these highly improbable, one-off events “natural” is only to play with definitions. Logic is of necessity timeless, universal, and certain; it cannot evolve. Neither can truth. Conceptual necessities like these are not made of particles and forces. These are beyond nature – supernatural. It means that Landau prefers some miracles over others.

Landau saves his biggest point for last: Lee Strobel is a poor researcher. “Apart from all of these other weaknesses in Strobel’s presentation, I believe that Strobel has made no real effort to bring in a diversity of scholarly views.” Actually, he did. Or, it could be phrased, he didn’t need to. As an atheist, Strobel already trusted in the anti-resurrection arguments he commonly used to criticize the Bible; that’s why he went to the other side for the first time in his life to see whether Christian scholars could stand up to the “diversity of scholarly views” he was familiar with. A look at Strobel’s Bibliography and Index shows that he did research a diversity of views, so Landau’s claim is false on its face. Landau also ignores that Strobel has continued researching and writing long after the book was first published in 1998: his website LeeStrobel.com lists The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, The Case for the Real Jesus, The Case for Christianity, and other books.

In addition, the pro-resurrection scholars Strobel interviews, all of them, are very familiar with all the skeptical arguments, and refuted them in the book and in the film. This can only mean that Landau didn’t like the scholars Strobel used, or is upset that he didn’t use Landau’s favorite scholars.

One can play the my-scholars-vs-your-scholars game endlessly, but what people should focus on is the evidence. In the list of nine arguments above, we see Landau relying a lot on his own speculation. Witnesses might have been mistaken. The resurrection might have been just an apparition. Paul might have been ambiguous in his references. The body might have been moved for other reasons. Ergo, because miracles are impossible, the resurrection didn’t happen. For Strobel, though, it was the accumulated weight and congruence of the positive evidence – not the imaginations of his own mind – that pointed to the reality of the resurrection. After writing two columns of evidence pro and con, he realized “it would take a lot more faith to remain an atheist” than to accept the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. And so, he says, he followed the evidence where it led.

Landau conveniently ignores many of the other arguments in favor of the resurrection.

  • Other attested early-first-century books (James, Galatians, Thessalonian epistles, etc.) mention the resurrection as fact within the lifetime of eyewitnesses.
  • Jesus’ two half-brothers through Mary and Joseph, James and Jude, both refer to Jesus as the Lord of glory and Messiah in their epistles. This would have been blasphemous if Jesus were a mere mortal. The Epistle of James may be the earliest of all New Testament writings.
  • Luke is widely regarded as a careful researcher. The theme of the resurrection permeates his books, the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles.
  • The Old Testament, written centuries before Christ, predicted that Messiah would not suffer decay in the grave. Peter and the apostles, though not understanding these texts till after they saw the risen Christ, quoted these passages in their sermons to the Jews. (See film Prophecies of the Passion from La Mirada Films.)
  • The Roman Jewish historian Josephus records that Christians were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah on the third day after Pilate had him crucified.
  • Myths and legends usually don’t arise within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses, especially those who are skeptical.
  • Paul suggested his readers could check the 500 witnesses, “most of whom are still alive”.
  • There are no documents of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus’ dead body after the disciples claimed he had risen.
  • The 12 disciples were discouraged after the crucifixion, not expecting to see Jesus again. They were shocked and surprised by what they saw.
  • According to the gospels, the first eyewitnesses were women. Since nobody at the time considered women’s testimony reliable, a mythmaker would never come up with such an embarrassing detail.
  • A member of the Sanhedrin buried Jesus with help from others, and witnesses including the women saw where the tomb was.
  • Roman soldiers would have been crucified for sleeping on watch. The disciples could not have snuck in while they were asleep.
  • The other theories (Jesus swooned and didn’t really die, the disciples stole the body, the disciples saw a ghost, the women went to the wrong tomb, etc.) have been refuted as illogical by many investigators besides Strobel.
  • Something happened to transform a scared band of disciples into powerful preachers of the resurrection.
  • The disciples didn’t find this new mission a source of money or power. They were imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and martyred.
  • The rapid rise of the early church in Jerusalem, ground zero for the events of which they were witnesses, makes sense if the resurrection were a fact.
  • Luke 6:7 records that “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Priests who had heard and seen Jesus before the crucifixion would have had a strong bias against believing in him, since most of the leaders in the Sanhedrin had condemned him.
  • Paul himself was an eyewitness of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus when on a journey to persecute those who believed Jesus had risen.
  • Paul tells King Agrippa “these things were not done in a corner,” suggesting that pagan rulers were well aware of the stories being told about the risen Christ.
  • The fact that all the apostles died martyr’s deaths for their faith, not a single one recanting and saying it was a hoax or a plot.
  • The realization that the Jews and Romans could have immediately stopped the rise of this new Christian movement by producing the body of Jesus.
  • This is not an exhaustive list.

Landau, apparently bothered by accusations of anti-supernaturalism, ends by claiming that scholars like Gary Habermas who defend the resurrection “are just as anti-supernaturalist when it comes to miraculous claims outside of the beginnings of Christianity, such as those involving later Catholic saints or miracles from non-Christian religious traditions.” But do any of those alleged miracles have anything like this kind of powerful evidence? Find one believer in these other miraculous claims willing to be crucified for that belief. Find one that has so much documentation, so many hostile witnesses, and an empty tomb skeptics can visit. Most of those ‘miracles’ (like Joseph Smith’s or Mohammed’s alleged revelations) rely on the words of single people with dubious credentials who had nothing to lose for making their claim, and much to gain. When it comes to eyewitness testimony, Christianity has an embarrassment of riches in terms of documentation and eyewitness testimony.  Some have commented that the resurrection is one of the best-attested events in history. We know more about it than we do about the assassination of Julius Caesar. Witnesses to the resurrection come from people under threat of death and imprisonment, many of whom actually were persecuted and killed. Would they do that for a lie? People may give their lives for things they mistakenly think are true, but not for things they know are false.

Live Science reprinted Landau’s little piece from The Conversation as though it’s all you need to know. But since the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most pivotal events in human history, each person deserves to investigate the case for Christ not with selective opinions of preferred scholars, but with the accumulated power of all the evidence. To avoid a biased idea of what Strobel has said, consider watching the documentary film version of The Case for Christ from La Mirada Films, where you can hear him speak for himself and weigh the arguments from numerous Bible scholars. They all encourage the viewer to think. At the end, Strobel asks the viewer not to take his word for it, but to do their own investigations of the evidence. That’s something Landau does not do.

Don’t stop with The Case for Christ. When put in context with his follow-up films The Case for a Creator, which demolishes Darwinism and naturalism, and The Case for Faith, which tackles the toughest challenges against Christianity, it’s easy to understand why Lee Strobel is no longer an angry skeptic. These three outstanding documentaries (based on his books), featuring Strobel himself instead of an actor (as in the current movie portrayal), belong in your video library. All three are available as a packaged trilogy from La Mirada Films.

Happy Easter, everyone. Don’t let the skeptics get you down. Jesus is risen; He is risen indeed! And life is worth the living, just because He Lives.

 

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