Are the minimal facts that surround the death of Jesus actually persuasive in accepting his resurrection? In Chapter 21 of Natasha Crain's Keeping Your Kids on God's Side, Natasha asks, "What are the historical facts of the resurrection that nearly every scholar agrees on?" Natasha states that "If the resurrection isn't true, Christianity is meaningless." Well, she said it, not me; and I don't necessarily know that it would make it meaningless. There are some beneficial teachings in the Bible. Although she is convinced that there is overwhelming historical evidence to support the resurrection, she goes on to make a surprising acknowledgement. "To be sure, most people don't come to Jesus because they first learned about this evidence. But learning about it can give your kids a much deeper level of confidence that the convictions they already have are true." In other words, indoctrinate first. Then, do what every Christian apologist does. Work your way backwards and try like hell to make the pieces of the puzzle fit. And when they don't, just have faith.
Now, I had never heard of these "minimal facts" until recently, but I certainly didn't find them convincing. Natasha shares, "In the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Drs. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona detail what they call the “Minimal Facts” approach to the resurrection. Their basic objective is to strip away any religious assumptions about what happened and consider 'only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones'." Nearly every scholar? That's sounding suspicious already. We'll see what you think. Here goes...
1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
2) Jesus' disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them.
3) The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4) The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
That's it. Even if I was willing to grant every one of these as facts, I certainly could not come to the conclusion that the most plausible explanation was a resurrection! First of all, that Jesus died by crucifixion has no bearing on whether or not he was resurrected. In reference to the second fact, Natasha notes, "A skeptic may claim that there are natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanations for what happened to the disciples, but very few deny that the disciples experienced something." Yes, visions are a likely natural explanation. She goes on to explain that this experience allowed the disciples to "willingly face severe punishment and death." As I talked about here, the fact that Jesus had followers who were willing to die for their belief in him does not make the belief true. It should also be noted that the argument from martyrdom is highly questionable and one that apologists should refrain from using, unless they can offer substantiating evidence. For more information regarding this, I highly recommend Matthew Ferguson's article "March to Martyrdom! (Down the Yellow Brick Road...)." Furthermore, that a persecutor and a skeptic changed their minds regarding the divinity of Jesus matters not to me.
In Chapter 22, Natasha asks "What are the major theories people use to explain those facts?" Okay, let's just cover two of these theories, because "these facts require an explanation," and I feel that these are the most plausible, certainly more so than a supernatural resurrection. Firstly, "The people who saw Jesus were hallucinating." Of course, Natasha swiftly discards this because hallucinations are not group experiences nor are they simultaneous. Really? I'm betting most Protestant Christian apologists don't believe in the Miracle of the Sun, an event recognized as supernatural by the Catholic Church. Would that otherwise not be categorized as a mass hallucination? Furthermore, experiencing visions or hallucinations of a loved one during extreme grief is also very common, naturally explaining the disciples' experiences. In regard to Paul, is it not possible that he came to lament and feel guilty for his role in persecuting Jesus' followers and thus had a vision of being reprimanded by Jesus? Moreover, supposed post-mortem sightings are not unusual either, as we've probably all heard stories of Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley sightings. Why discard these modern stories yet accept those from ancient sources?
Moving on to the next theory, "As Jesus' teachings spread, they were embellished with supernatural details." Oh, no, this could never happen! Natasha defends her skeptical position on this theory by explaining that when addressing the Corinthians, Paul verbalizes what appears to be an earlier creed (thought to be within 2-5 years of Jesus' crucifixion) regarding Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, and appearance to the disciples. The creed includes verses 3-7, but I'm adding verse 8 in for further explanation.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (ESV) 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Let's first keep in mind that a creed is nothing more than a belief statement. That a statement of faith formed shortly after Jesus' death is not surprising nor is it evidence of the events listed. Paul also asserts that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, something that we have no verification of from other sources, including the Gospels. In addition, as the eighth verse indicates, Paul adds himself to the list of appearances. However, we know that Paul only experienced a vision of Jesus, which begs the question of the nature of the disciples' and James' post-mortem encounters with Jesus. Are visions synonymous with appearances? Our first theory of visions or hallucinations starts to become even more likely given Paul's statement.
Yes, the power of childhood indoctrination is real. Under no other circumstances would Christians accept a supernatural resurrection as the best explanation for anything, but we'll talk more about that next time!