What makes the resurrection of Jesus so significant to Christianity?

Dr. Gary Habermas is one of the foremost defenders of the historical Jesus and the Resurrection, the crux of Christianity. He is the Distinguished Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy and chairman of the department of philosophy and theology at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has authored or coauthored more than three dozen books and has been a visiting professor at more than a dozen graduate schools.

Dr. Habermas was recently a guest on two episodes of Hank Unplugged. The following dialogue is adapted from that discussion.

Hank Hanegraaff: Let’s look at comparative religions. There is just nothing on the landscape like Christianity. So often people have this idea that you are going to find facsimiles of the Resurrection in other religions; however, that is not the case. In fact, the more you look, the less there is for the historicity of the other religious figures in some cases, and in the main there is no good reason for believing that what people are giving their lives to, or what they have believed to be reality, has any validity at all.

Gary Habermas: That is right. In fact, my teaching assistant, who is a PhD candidate, and I just finished two articles. One of them is for the Christian Research Journal. The other for another publication. For both, I was asked to write an article on the uniqueness of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions. We list about six things that are really different, all of which surround the nature of the gospel. You are so right in that comment.

In fact, if I could expand it just a little bit. All religions have what you might call negative apologetics. They will say, “You are a loser,” “you are wrong,” “that is not correct;” however, no other faith, including Judaism, no other religion has what we would call positive evidences, wherein they could say, “My faith is true for these reasons,” and really give solid reasons. When I give a lecture on this subject, about what is true about religion and what is not, I give a list of about ten reasons, and four of them are simply true of religion in general. For example, intelligent design. You could say, “I’m a Buddhist, and I think the universe is designed also.” You can also talk about near-death experiences, and a person can say, “I’m a Hindu and my uncle had a near-death experience.” That is for religion in general. But, six of the ten evidences are evidences that indicate Christianity specifically is true. To my knowledge, other religions do not have this empirical, measurable data that says, “Our faith is true because of this, this, and so on.” You are exactly right. The Resurrection heads the list for Christianity.

Hank: Take me through the progression on how things have changed in the academy since the time of your PhD work to the present in terms of how the Resurrection is viewed.

Gary: Sure. You know what? That is a tricky question, because oftentimes when I do this general lecture on the Resurrection, which I have given something like two thousand times, I will talk about differences just like that. I tell them when I was in graduate school (you talk about our ages); I was finishing my PhD when I was still quite young. I finished my PhD when I was twenty-five years old. I was twenty-one years old in graduate school when I started my MA. If I were to say in my grad classes in those days, “Hey, you know what? I believe Jesus did miracles,” “I believe the tomb was empty,” or “I believe He appeared in bodily form to His followers,” if I were to say one of those three things (Jesus did miracles; tomb was empty; He appeared bodily), my classmates would probably judge, whether or not they said so in public, that they just heard from a guy that is either an evangelical or a conservative Catholic. This is, at least at our university. I have my master’s degree from a Catholic university. They might say, “Oh, yeah, he must be studying for the priesthood or something. Well, only conservatives believe those things.”

Today, I will give you a rundown on all three of them. Jesus is a miracle worker. Where is that? It has been said in books that 100 percent, though that is not quite true, but some of the research books today say that 100 percent of schools believe that Jesus did miracles, at least healing miracles and exorcisms. He either did the ones in the Gospels, or things just like them. In other words, maybe instead of feeding five-thousand, he fed three-thousand, but that thing happened. Miracles are “in” today.

Empty tomb. Where are we on that? Empty tomb is held by about 75 percent of scholars today, whereas when I was in school, it might have been 20 percent.

Lastly, what about the view that Jesus was raised in bodily form, not just some sort of wispy or ghostly sort of form? The majority view today is that Jesus appeared, and that He appeared bodily. A recent survey I did a few years ago, less than one in four critical scholars now come up with naturalistic theories to explain away the Resurrection. In my headcount, this was very unofficial, but in the little headcount I did, it was like 23 to 24 percent who come up with naturalistic theories. Naturalistic theories are kind of ignored today. This is kind of a day when the supernatural is “in.” Yet, so many say, “I’m Buddhist.” This is surely a popular thing, and you can be a Buddhist while not being really conservative, so people do not go, “Oh, really?” Rather, they just go, “Huh, yep, go right on.” But if you say, “I am a conservative Christian,” you will get screamed at.

The field is changing to answer your question. Belief in the supernatural is way up. Personal belief in miracles, personal belief in the afterlife, 70 percent, 80 percent, and sometimes 90 percent.

Hank: You alluded to this already, but I think it will be good for people listening in to get just an idea, a flavor, of why we are so passionately supporting the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You think about the quintessential text, 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says,

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (vv. 3-8 NIV).

The first thing that strikes me is that Paul is receiving something and passing it on. It turns out that he is passing along a creedal statement that can be traced all the way back to the Messiah’s murder. How significant is it that Paul is talking about something that has no time whatsoever for legendary corruption?

Gary: It is extremely important. Critics, even those who are Jesus Seminar members (that may not be a phrase a lot of your listeners know about, but the Jesus Seminar is the group that throw the beads in the hat, and if you count the so-called red-letter words of Jesus, based on how the colors of the beads are counted, they reject between 80-90 percent of Jesus’ red-letter words, the sayings. They say Jesus did not say those things), well, there are Jesus Seminar scholars, I am thinking of one right now whose is very prominent, he calls that, as many of them do, he calls that phrase (1 Corinthians 15:3–8) a pre-Pauline utterance.

Someone can say, “Well, of course it is pre-Pauline; Paul said he got it from somebody else.” But, I am saying something a little bit different. Paul is saying he got it from somebody else. Okay, yep, that is for sure; however, pre-Pauline means when Paul was on the way to Damascus and met the risen Jesus, that creed was already in existence. If you call it pre-Pauline, you mean it was there when Saul of Tarsus was a persecutor.

If Paul’s conversion is, as it is often dated, one to three years after the cross — if you date the cross at AD 30, some say AD 33, but if you date the cross at AD 30, Paul’s conversion is at AD 31–33 — that creed was already there between AD 30 and the date of the conversion. Some of the leading critics will put that creed back at about AD 30. James D. G. Dunn, who’s as influential as any historical Jesus scholar today, says that creed was already formalized within a few months of the cross.

The way I like to think of it is we’re pretty accurate. We [are not certain of the year] of the death of Jesus, but the Resurrection happened in spring of that year. If He was raised from the dead, let us say in March (this year it is April), if He was raised from the dead in March or April, and if Dunn is right, that creed was in existence within a few months. This means by the time that year ended, AD 30, the creed already existed. That is how early it was.

The fact that it came down through several people who were witnesses — three of the six groups there — three of the six appearances that Paul lists — they are groups. This is very important. Groups do not hallucinate. This one sentence is very, very early, and very, very significant. It is real history.

Listen to part 1 of the Hank Unplugged episode with Gary Habermas here.

Listen to part 2 of the Hank Unplugged episode with Gary Habermas here.

More articles from Gary Habermas:

When Religious Doubt Grows Agonizing

Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: HALLUCINATION the Recent Revival of Theories

Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels

See also the following estore offers:

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (B8909) by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona

In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (B1086) edited by Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas


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