Minimal Facts, the Resurrection, and Evangelism

Minimal Facts, the Resurrection, and Evangelism

As a mentor of mine has often said: when doing apologetics, always make a bee-line to the gospel.

Introduction

The first time I remember contemplating the resurrection, I distinctly remember thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I grew up in church and was saved at a young age. Maybe I hadn’t really grasped the coming back to life part, or maybe I just didn’t get the theological significance. And honestly, as I got older, I didn’t give it much more thought until my mind began turning toward apologetic questions. I was initially surprised at how much weight and time various apologists gave to the resurrection. For reasons that may not be directly related to the resurrection, as my interest in apologetics grew, a fascinating theme began to develop: I began to see that Christianity is reasonable. In a world steeped in the scientific method and data-driven results, I was beginning to learn that—while I had my own solid reasons for being a Christian, namely, my relationship with Christ—conversations with others didn’t have to be limited to my own experiences with it. Yes, those bits are important. But wading into spiritual conversations with my primary tools being my own personal experiences, I often felt the pressure of having to convince others that what I was talking about was somehow different than a fully grown adult believing in the Easter Bunny. Again, I didn’t feel that way about my faith. But I was working against perceptions of those who did. 

One day I came across a method of doing apologetics which started from the ground up. The premise was this: Let’s only start with the facts that we all agree to. And then, being the responsible thinkers that we are, we’ll follow the evidence where it leads. To me, this was like candy. I couldn’t get enough of it. Now, years later, as I continue to contemplate apologetics, I’m struck with how powerful a witness evidential apologetics is. The purpose of this essay is to briefly work though why, from a non-Christian Western perspective, it is both more reasonable and consistent to believe in resurrection than not.

A Reasonable Witness

What are the facts? Gary Habermas’ work (as well as Mike Licona’s and others) is a helpful place to start. The dozen or so “minimal facts” include: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, Jesus’ burial, the initial despondency of Jesus’ followers, the first resurrection announcements first happened in Jerusalem, a couple key converts were James and Paul, and the gospel centers on Jesus’ death and resurrection.[1] Any of these facts would not, by themself, be very convincing. But all together… that’s much harder to ignore. That the disciples first preached resurrection in Jerusalem, where Jesus was also crucified and buried—that’s easy to falsify, if it weren’t true. Or, consider another combo: Fanatics believe crazy things all the time. But what causes fanatics to switch sides? Is it the same as what causes lighter skeptics? Paul was a fanatic (see Acts 7). James grew up the same house as Jesus, he even saw his miracles. Yet it wasn’t until after his death that he converted.

A skeptic may still be unmoved. But here’s where the minimal facts for Jesus’ resurrection shines. At this point, it is not at all unreasonable to pause and shift. For anyone still holding out, they are quickly approaching the point (if they have not already arrived) where it is time for them to defend why they are not persuaded. Skepticism is often considered a virtue. But it has its limits. The very difficult position the skeptic is now in is that of rehashing what so many philosophers and historians have already concluded—something to the effect of: “I’m not really sure what happened, but I know it couldn’t have been that.” The point of apologetics is not to save. Only God can do that. Instead the point of apologetics is to clear away the ground brush so that a person can clearly interact with the gospel. But, of course, not everyone will want the gospel.

A Consistent Witness

There is a difference between public scrutiny and ideological scrutiny. Consider the example of sexual ethics. Today, in the West, one can claim to be a homosexual and the public opinion is often one of “tolerance,” where everyone else is expected to accept that lifestyle. What goes into that acceptance is not simply turning the other way and letting someone do what they want, but is instead the embracing of it. In other words, passive acceptance is not “tolerance,” only active acceptance is. However, when one claims to be an evangelical Christian (and then holds to all the sexual ethics that go along with that), they are now condemned as “intolerant” for believing that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong. It seems to me that, by and large, our society is using the word “tolerant,” when perhaps, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”[2]

Ideological scrutiny, on the other hand, demands an internal (and external) coherence. Counting heads is not what leads to truth or moral uprightness. According to a correspondence theory of truth, broadly speaking, whatever aligns with reality is true. At least, it’s a very strong starting point. Without objective landmarks, it’s hard to defend truth, and, by extension, to establish or defend what is right or wrong. For instance, under such a subjective model, how does society determine what is right? Is it just what the majority of us want? And if it is the majority, is it a simple, 50.01% majority? Or does it need to be a higher ratio? And should that ratio change based on the issue and what is at stake? And what happens when the group changes its mind and no longer considers something to be right anymore? Or, what if the ratio changes so that there is no longer a majority, just various minority opinions? Do we still pick the largest even though it does not represent the majority of the people? These are just a few surface level questions that plague relative truth claims. 

Consider Christian sexual ethics when combined with the minimal facts of the resurrection. Not only are these two ideologically consistent and historically constant, but the resurrection gives basis to these claims. The Christian sexual ethic flows out of Jesus’ own teachings. Of course, arguing a sexual ethic is not required for evangelism. But this is a popular issue today. Much of the Western world will look at Christian sexual ethics as merely a product of tradition, and an outdated one at that. But connecting it to the resurrection reframes the conversation, planting it within the very strong factual evidence of the resurrection. Again, as noted above, evidence, no matter how strong it is, does not convince everyone. But it can take away their excuses.

Evangelism and the Resurrection

The gospel is, in a way, harmful. When it comes to salvation, for anyone who clings to themselves or to anything other than God, the gospel is like a SWAT team that batters down the door, destroying whatever peace one might have had before the invasion. Continuing that analogy, some people will receive the gospel, because they felt like a hostage in that room. Whatever was holding them, they no longer loved it. And they recognize that the SWAT team, the gospel, is the path to freedom. But for many, perhaps most, this is not the case. The gospel is offensive in the deepest possible way. However, God did not call us to only take the gospel to those we’re sure will accept it. He called us to be his ambassadors to the world (2 Cor. 5:18–20). And so we go in his power, both spiritually, knowing he has already won the war (John 16:33), but also intellectually and practically, knowing that we bring the very best of news, and its case is very strong indeed.

Endnotes

[1] For the full list, see: Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), 9–10.

[2] For the uninitiated, this line is from a character in the movie, The Princess Bride (20th Century Fox, 1987), adapted from the 1973 novel of the same name.