Western culture today is very interesting. By this I mean that it has put science at the driving seat; if science shows something to be false then it is false, if science shows it to be true then it is true. When this focus is shifted to towards the “science vs religion” debate many people tend to assume a simplistic Richard Dawkins type model which suggests that science has disproven religion. There are multiple issues with this picture, firstly how do we define ‘religion’? religion is not nearly as simple to define as you may first think (this video helpfully demonstrates why) and so ultimately the question really becomes, what specifically is science disproving anyway?
The sheer focus on all things scientific has meant that for the most part the general public have remained largely unaware of the hugely positive advancements in biblical New Testament scholarship. Wholly apart from scientific considerations, biblical New Testament scholarship deals with history, not science. A key point to raise at this point is that the Christian worldview isn’t based on scientific evidence for God, the Christian worldview is based on the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection. It is thus interesting to note just how frequently skeptics tend to launch scientific attacks against Christianity, all the while leaving completely untouched the historical evidence for the resurrection of which actually stands at the foundation of our belief. In this article I am going to provide a snippet of just how positive the historical evidence is in favour of the resurrection of Christ even if we accept atheistic considerations and limitations.
“The bible is unreliable therefore cannot be used as evidence!”
My first question would be, how exactly did you come to this conclusion?1 Is this an informed decision after studying the biblical historical evidence from scholars or is this a response just on the basis of a hunch and maybe few online mainstream articles seeking to disprove the bible? The reason I bring this is up is because you may be surprised to know that atheistic scholars themselves would shake their heads in shame at anyone who would ever suggest that the entire bible is unreliable and a bad source of historical evidence. Let me give you just one example. Bart D. Ehrman is a leading New Testament scholars and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is also an ardent atheist however here are his own words from his book Did Jesus Exist?
I need to make a preliminary remark about the Gospels as historical sources. Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together and declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated in this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers [Fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists] and my contention is that both of them are completely wrong. However else the Gospels are used – for example, in communities of faith – they can and must be considered historical sources of information.2
Things only get better from here. Not only does Ehrman affirm the validity of the bible as a historical book, he – along side a number of other skeptical New Testament scholars – come so close to affirming the resurrection of Christ that upon first reading their statements you might be forgiven for thinking that they really did affirm the resurrection of Christ. For example, Ehrman states that:
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.3
Gerd Ludemann is a leading atheistic German new Testament Scholar, yet his claim cuts to the point even more directly than Ehrman’s:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.4
As I mentioned earlier it seems almost as if both scholars are claiming that the resurrection did in fact happen, however, upon further inspection when we look at their specific word choices such as “came to believe” and “experiences after Jesus death” we can more clearly see both are very careful not to actually proclaim the resurrection, rather they simply suggest that Jesus’ disciples were not lying about having the experiences and beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection appearances which they record in the bible. Now just think about what this means, this means that world leading atheistic scholars today more or less accept 1) the reliability of the Bible (at least significant parts of it) 2) that Jesus was a real human being who lived and taught, and lastly 3) that Jesus died and was buried in a tomb just as the Bible says. The only part that these scholars avoid is the resurrection because its acceptance would effectively initiate Christianity. If skeptical scholars are at this point today, why do the media continue to publish colourful posts attempting to discredit the Bible?
So how did New Testament scholarship get to the point where skeptical scholars are now almost basically accepting the resurrection of Christ? Well there are a number reasons, however, one name stands out as a fundamental catalyst. Professor Gary Habermas is a leading Christian New Testament scholar at Liberty University who attained his PhD is 1976. In his PhD work he developed a method in order to show the resurrection to be true even if one only accepted skeptical/atheistic scholarly data regarding the bible. Habermas developed and now regularly employs what is known across the world today as the minimal facts approach to proving the resurrection. Minimal facts are essentially facts about the bible and Jesus that even atheist scholars – such as Ehrman and Ludermann – would accept. (Two minimal facts examples are 1. that Jesus died by crucifixion and 2. that Paul – initially a Christian persecutor – converted to Christianity after what he claimed to be the appearance of Christ to him about two to three years after the resurrection). Habermas’ claim is that even if you only accept skeptical scholarly data you still get the resurrection, that is to say, if the Bible is the inspired word of God – you get the resurrection, if the bible isn’t the inspired word of God but at least a reliable history book – you get the resurrection, if the bible isn’t the word of God and isn’t reliable…you still get the resurrection! In other words, Habermas’ argument is that the resurrection happened regardless of your position.5 Now this is a big claim to make of course and it is not my aim to fully expand on his argument, however the claims made by Ehrman and Ludemann – as I have quoted above – should provide useful in us beginning to understanding why Habermas is able to confidently affirm his position.
What does this all mean?
The first clear point to make after sieving through all this information is that contrary to popular belief, Christianity has very good historical support. The resurrection is the linchpin upon which Christianity stands or falls and fortunately the evidence points strongly in favour of it standing not falling. Whilst we continue to hear the same old tired and refuted claims perpetrated by the media, for example, as science continues to progress religion will decline, we see the complete opposite trend taking place right within the field of New Testament scholarship. Just about 50 years ago anthropologist Anthony Wallace declared that “belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge.”6 Not only has this not happened but the opposite rather seems to have occurred in many parts of the world as Historian of science Peter Harrison contends:
Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.7
And so the case for Christianity – based on the historical evidence – is as strong as ever. This is not to say that the scientific evidence for God is weak, on the contrary developments over the last 100 years in cosmology and biology have seen some of the strongest confirmations for the existence of God.8 9 10 Rather all of this taken together provides Christianity with a secure foundation and this in turn suggests that ultimately belief in Christ’s resurrection isn’t a leap into the darkness, but rather an informed and rational choice based on the abundance of available evidence.
1) Koukl, G,. 2009. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussion Your Christian Convictions. Michigan: Zondervan.
2) Ehrman, B., 2012. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. San Francisco: HarperOne. p71
3) Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 276
4) Ludermann, G., 1996. What really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p80
5) Habermas, G, R., 2015. Evidence for the Historical Jesus. Is the Jesus of History the Christ of Faith? http://www.garyhabermas.com
6) Harrison, P,. 2017. Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it . [online] Available at: <https://aeon.co/ideas/why-religion-is-not-going-away-and-science-will-not-destroy-it>
7) Harrison, P,. 2017. Why religon is not going away and science will not destroy it . [online] Available at: <https://aeon.co/ideas/why-religion-is-not-going-away-and-science-will-not-destroy-it>