Today we begin to address the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus, which, as I have emphasized, is the crucial event at the origin of Christianity. All subsequent Christian history and teaching is premised on the reality of the resurrection. And as Paul readily admits, “if Christ is not risen” (1 Cor 15:14-19), the Christian message is false, the Christian way of life is useless, and the Christian hope is groundless. It has taken us four essays on the resurrection to get to this point. We had to get a feel for how the first believers understood the event of the resurrection. How else could we know what is at stake in our decision to accept or reject their witness? Now we know that to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead is to accept a radical reorientation in our worldview and a revolution in our way of life. Likewise, to reject the resurrection of Jesus is to reject all that flows from it, the forgiveness of sins, hope of the resurrection, the identity of God, the meaningfulness of suffering, and the love of God.
Allow me to remind readers that this is the twenty-fourth essay in this series on the truth of Christianity. We are now dealing with the fourth decision point on the journey from atheistic materialism to full Christian faith. In my opinion, only those who have gone through the first three decision points are ready to face the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus. What sense does it make to present a case for the resurrection of Jesus to a materialist? Nor is a polytheist or pantheist or committed deist ready to make a rational judgment or a responsible decision about it. Perhaps, if the atheist or deist could have seen the crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Good Friday and accompanied the women to the tomb on Sunday morning to see the empty tomb and meet Jesus alive…or, if they had been struck down like Paul on the Damascus Road and heard Jesus speak directly to them, they would have come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the existence of God at the same time. Perhaps they would not deny the evidence gathered by their own eyes and ears. But we cannot reproduce these events for them or for ourselves. We have only the testimony of those who say they experienced them and the testimony of those who believed them.
And for those who do not want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, there are plenty of ways to evade that conclusion. If you are an atheist materialist, you think you know apart from any historical evidence that the resurrection did not happen, because, since there is no God, God could not have raised Jesus. No evidence will move you. Deists respond much the same way. God set up the world to run on its own and does not interfere. Since God never interferes with course of natural events, God did not reverse the course of nature in Jesus’ case either. If atheists or deists bother with history at all, they see their job as finding plausible naturalistic explanations for historical reports of miracles: the supposed eye and ear witnesses were mistaken or they lied. The reports do not come from eye witnesses but from hearsay, and, whatever really happened, the story has become overlain with legend or myth.
For those who believe in the one God who made the world and sustains it in existence every moment, for those who are open to divine revelation in nature and history, and for those who have no rational or theological objections to miracles, objections that are based on presupposed atheism or deism don’t carry much weight. They are either irrelevant because they presuppose atheism when we are convinced of God’s existence or they are disingenuous because they make metaphysical objections in the guise of historical arguments.
My reading of Christian apologetic literature has led me to conclude that many of these well-intentioned works do not take the preceding cautions into account; and they make other serious mistakes that limit their value in helping people come to faith: (1) they do not take care to follow the most rational decision cascade from atheism to full Christian faith; (2) they fall into the evidentialist trap of accepting the burden of proof; (3) they give the impression of anxiety, of being over-eager to convince; or (4) they overstate their case, providing easy targets for rebuttal. Each of these mistakes in its own way deflects nonbelievers’ attention away from the seriousness of their situation and from the necessity of making a decision in the moment.
Perhaps these considerations will help you understand why I am somewhat impatient with objections to the resurrection faith that are based on atheism, deism, or any other philosophy that denies the possibility of miracles. Responding to such objections is fruitless endeavor. I am also impatient with equivocations, demands for more evidence, and alternative ways of explaining the resurrection faith that seem to be designed to evade the real issue. The division between faith and unbelief is not merely a matter of dispassionately weighing evidence in some neutral scales. It is also a matter of friendship or hostility, love or hate; this decision has an unmistakable moral dimension. Paul and the others claim they know that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and they staked the meaning of their entire existence on this fact. Either they are correct or they are lying or they are mistaken. You have to look them in the eyes and say, “I believe you” or “I don’t believe you.” You have to make a decision and live with it. And you have to do it now. This is a vital component of any apologetic situation. Any apologetic that does not make this clear risks failure.