The Necessity of a Historical Resurrection: An Interview with Michael Licona
Michael Licona is an associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of Risen Jesus, Inc. He is a frequent speaker on university campuses, churches, Christian groups, retreats, debates, and has appeared as a guest on dozens of radio and television programs. He is best known for his research regarding the resurrection of Jesus and his work on the subject, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (InterVarsity Press, 2010). The editorial staff at Credo Magazine recently reached out to Dr. Licona to discuss the resurrection, how best to understand history, and the epistemic justification of miracles for a modern audience.
How does one’s presuppositions or worldview affect one’s view of history?
One will be especially averse to concluding that miracles occur if one does not think God exists or acts in our world, if he does. And that can compromise the integrity of one’s historical work. Similarly, those of us who are followers of Jesus will be inclined to trust the New Testament accounts, because we view the New Testament as divinely inspired. However, if we are not careful, the integrity of our work as Christian historians may be compromised, since we may be too quick to conclude a particular act or logion of Jesus is authentic and it will be our theological convictions rather than careful historical work that unduly influences our conclusions.
Considering the nature of miracles, is it even possible to establish proof for a historical resurrection?
I think we need to define what we mean by “proof.” Since we cannot get into a time machine, return to the past, and verify our conclusions, “proof” in an absolute sense is not possible. So, we use, or should use, strictly controlled historical method. Even then, the results of properly executed method do not guarantee correct results. And just as with the various disciplines of science, there are occasions when newly discovered material changes previously held conclusions. So, historical method is not perfect. But, when executed properly, it’s generally reliable. And it’s a lot more reliable than other methods, such as tarot cards and magic eight balls! That said, historians are seeking probability. We compare hypotheses and prefer the one that accounts for the data better than all others. That hypothesis is then said to describe what probably occurred.
Now I want to be clear here. Christians are not required to doubt as a result of historical method being incapable of giving us absolute certainty. We distinguish between trusting Scripture as God’s Word and the degree to which historians can establish something, like the resurrection of Jesus, using the tools available to them.
It has often been said, but is it true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
I do not think extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Lets say I am lecturing in front of a class of 20 students. Some terrorists looking for me enter the classroom and behead me in front of my students. An hour later when the students are talking outside with police officers, I walk out of the classroom with my head attached, a nasty scar on my neck and announce to everyone that God has raised me from the dead to confirm once again that Jesus is his Son. Now THAT would certainly be an extraordinary event! If you were one of the 20 students, would you believe the event had occurred? Of course! You had witnessed it with your own eyes. But that’s not extraordinary evidence. In fact, it’s the same ordinary evidence as watching a ball game. So, extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence to justify belief. However, a person may require additional evidence before being persuaded. For example, an atheist who is genuinely seeking truth may ask for evidence that God exists prior to granting a historical case for Jesus’s resurrection.
What are a few key facts concerning the historical resurrection of Jesus that transcend certain theological camps and are affirmed by a variety of scholars today?
There is nearly a universal and heterogenous consensus among today’s scholars in the relevant fields that, shortly after Jesus’s death by crucifixion, a number of his followers had experiences they interpreted as being the risen Jesus appearing to them. These scholars likewise agree that a persecutor of the Christian church we now know as Paul also had an experience that he interpreted as the risen Jesus appearing to him. This radically transformed his life from being a persecutor of the church to one of its most able defenders. It is very rare to find a scholar today who denies these facts. Then there are a few additional facts that enjoy agreement by a very large (but not universal) heterogenous consensus of scholars. These include Jesus’s brother James and groups of Jesus’s followers having experiences they interpreted as the risen Jesus appearing to them. That Jesus’s tomb was empty likewise enjoys agreement by a healthy majority of scholars, although the heterogony of that majority, although present, is weak.
It may go without saying, but in light of your research concerning the resurrection of Jesus, is the average Christian “in the pew” justified in affirming the historical resurrection of Christ?
Yes! The hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead explains the facts far
better than any competing hypothesis. In fact, there are no alternative
hypotheses that even come close! The hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead explains the facts far better than any competing hypothesis. Click To Tweet
What is lost if Christians replace a historical and bodily resurrection with a spiritual or solely experiential understanding of Jesus’s resurrection?
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses some questions the Corinthian believers are asking. He says Christ was raised first (15:20) and we will be raised when he returns (15:23). He also says if Christ was not raised, our faith is worthless, our sins have not been forgiven, our believing loved ones who have died are forever lost, that we are more pitiful than others, and persecution experienced for the name of Christ is needless. So lets get every pleasure out of life that’s possible now (15:17-32)! We can state Paul’s argument thus: If Christ was not raised, we will not be raised. If we will not be raised, the Christian life is not worth living. But Christ was raised. Therefore, we will be raised. Therefore, the Christian life is worth living. This argument makes no sense unless Paul and the apostles understood Jesus’s resurrection to be a historical event.
Pertaining to the nature of resurrection, I would not be troubled if Jesus had taught I would be liberated from my physical body upon death, which was the most widely held Greek view of the nature of postmortem existence. However, the apostles did not teach a spiritual/ethereal existence after the Parousia. When Paul says “Christ is the firstfruits” and that believers will be raised at his coming, he is saying we will be raised as Christ was raised. That our resurrection involves our corpse is what Paul teaches elsewhere (Rom. 8:11, 23; Phil. 3:21). Moreover, in 1 Thess. 4:13-17, Paul informs us that when Christ returns he will bring the spirits of dead believers with him. The trumpet will then sound and the dead will be raised. If the dead are returning with Christ, what is being raised? It can be none other than the corpses of the dead believers. So, the spirits of dead believers who have been with Christ since their death return with him, are then reunited with their corpses, which are then raised to life and transformed into immortality. It’s a bodily resurrection. And since we will be raised as Christ was raised, this means Paul taught that Christ had been raised bodily, just as the Gospels do.